Tuesday, May 31, 2011


On Thursday we visited a motorcycle factory in the Han Gu (含谷) district of Chongqing, about a 40-minute drive from CTBU. The company is called Shineray (Xinyuan Kongfu 鑫源控服) and was founded in 1997 by a young entrepreneur who was in his early 20s. He apparently started out with only 7000 yuan, but as my colleague from the business school pointed out, this sum of money would have been a very good annual salary for a Chinese urbanite. Think of it as a six-figure salary of about 100,000 for a recent American college grad to put this into perspective.

I don't know where the founder and CEO got the money for this initial investment, but what he's done with it is impressive. The factory has the capacity to churn out 1000 motorbikes a day, and to date has produced at least 800,000 bikes and many more engine parts. The "bikes" include motorcycles for touring and transport, dirt bikes for competitive motor cross racing, and ATVs in shiny colors (I never knew I wanted one until I sat on a Shineray ATV and caught the glow! Fun!). They have also developed a line of small automobiles called Brilliance Auto, which sell for 30,000-40,000 RMB.

The company has an edge to it that perhaps reflects the youthfulness of the founder, who by all accounts seems to be a relatively forward-thinking and idealistic individual. The company is now the top Chinese company in the dirt bike industry and a proud sponsor of a national Shineray motor cross team that represents China in world championships. The factory grounds include a track for mx competition, for bike testing, and for training riders.

The grounds also include dormitories to house the workers, nearly 70%of whom are migrant workers. Moments before arriving at the factory I noted its location within a short walking distance from a long distance bus station advertising bus lines to far flung places: Kunming, Xi'an, Guizhou. I wondered which had come first, the factories in Han Gu or the bus lines to bring the workers there.

But this particular factory defied all of my students’ expectations about Chinese factories. Truth be told, I have only one other first-hand point of comparison—from a visit to a Nike factory in Canton about 13 years ago, which would have been right about when Shineray was founded. At that time, Nike factories were receiving a great deal of attention for their workers’ conditions in Asia. The manager— from Beaver, Utah—was clearly edgy and on-guard as he showed my husband and me around the place despite the fact that the Guangzhou factory was considered a model factory. Though he spoke about the safe conditions for workers there, the place seemed to me to be a miserable place to work, with many detailed tasks requiring repetitive motions in hot rooms with noisy machinery and the stench of chemical fumes.

The Shineray factory seems to represent an evolution in the model factory, clearly in a separate category from the Nike factory of over a decade ago. Like most Chinese factories, this one depends on human labor for tasks that have become highly automated in the U.S. It employees 1500 people, but the workshop itself is spacious and airy. It's a well-lit space, but not from harsh fluorescent lighting. One of my students pointed out to me that the lighting was "green" coming primarily from long skylights cut into the ceilings high above. The space was noisy, but it was the noise of engines revving up as young employees hopped on bikes fresh off the lines and raced them over to inspection stations, clearly delighting in the fact they had foreign kids as an audience. A student also noted that none of the employees on the line were wearing safety goggles or work boots, but I was actually impressed that they were all wearing either sneakers or crocks: footwear I could imagine choosing if I were standing on my feet all day.

A couple of other things about the factory that my colleague noted: the company keeps a great deal of inventory on the factory floor itself, in contrast to the American factories which move inventory out quickly, utilizing efficient transport lines, to maximize their use of precious real estate. She also noted that much of the equipment on the line looked like what we would have seen in American factories in the 1970s—not necessarily that the equipment itself is from the 70s, but this particular factory wasn't utilizing robotics in production in the same way as American factories. She cautioned me about generalizing from this one particular factory to all Chinese factories, as she did hear a report back from a student who visited a highly automated automobile factory in Chongqing last spring.

After our visit to a hall exhibiting the company's products and history followed by our tour of the factory floor, we were then taken to a large and bright reception room with chairs clustered around small tables. There we were served bottles of water (with Shineray labels) and we watched a video promoting the company. Shineray's treatment of its workers and its efforts at community engagement are clearly an important part of the articulated mission and public representation of the company. The video was in Chinese with English subtitles and showed employees gathered around a birthday cake and noted that every worker's birthday is celebrated, creating a warm atmosphere for migrant workers. It also said workers reside on site in an “Earth Village” equipped with exercise facilities and gardens, which grow "environmentally friendly" vegetables that are served in the cafeteria.

Community engagement was also highlighted in the film. Shineray dispatched hundreds of motorcycles after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and the eiders were able to bring emergency medical and rescue supplies to hard-to-reach areas. The company has also founded a school for children.

A school for children? My ears perked up. After the video, ambling slowly to the exit and towards our bus, I asked our guide about the school: is this school for liushou children (children left behind). Her face brightened, "Yes!" she exclaimed, "It's called Hope School, in He Chuan (合川) district. Have you heard of it?"

No, but as of two weeks ago I've now heard of schools like it, or at least of ideals of schools like it. I thought of Dean Xu from Shanghai and his call at the social work conference for more investment in community development by private enterprise (see my blog post from May 27th, 2011). I wish I could visit the Hope School and I wonder what work is being done there and by whom. Newly minted social workers, personnel trained by NGOs or nonprofits?

Last night I had dinner with 3 of the American participants in the social work conference: two of them are social work faculty with extensive field experience; one is an education professor—a Catholic priest who has worked in central America and in US prisons. They are, unabashedly, "bleeding heart liberals" with stories and experiences to back their convictions.

I asked them about the history of American social work and about social workers’ perceptions of this history. Do workers in the field see themselves as creating the foundations for civil society and democratic participation? I wanted the inside scoop here--beyond the rhetoric, how do you see the purpose of your jobs, your roles in the world?

What I got back was a resounding yes, we really are political activists seeking social reform and that's unapologetically a part of our discipline. Paula joked that when she gave the graduation speech upon receiving her doctorate from Bryn Mawr, her comment that "we are indeed bleeding heart liberals" was met with resounding applause. The discipline has historically had its critics, both for the activism of social worker professionals and by those who have thought the activism doesn't go far enough: that social work interventions have a palliative effect on human suffering and end up supporting systems of inequity, failing to promote genuine structural changes within the system.

I wonder about the palliative effect of improved conditions in factories and what these mask about larger schisms in the social system. One of my students mentioned in our student blog that the factory conditions were a lot better than she has expected to find. This comment had me quick to remind students that what we saw was only one factory built, not representative of all factories. I was also aware that my students have not seen the back-story of this factory: the children and grandparents left behind in the attempts to mobilize cheap labor to feed our modern demands for profits and products. The birthday candles and organic vegetables don't make up for the loss of hearth and home; and the social workers and schools can never make up for a mother's cooking or a father's arms.

Still, why am I feeling hopeful about the creation of "Hope School" and "Earth Village"? I suppose I'm hopeful because I believe in the value of ideals as having power beyond rhetoric. And I believe palliative measures can go a long way towards restoring human dignity.

One characteristic of our global age is an increased cross-cultural awareness and concern for such abstract concepts as “human rights”, “human dignity”, and “democracy”. Our understandings of what these concepts mean beyond the abstract are changing, and I think evolving. The acceptable model factory I saw 13 years ago, managed by Americans, had a much narrower vision of corporate responsibility than the factory I saw last week, founded by a young Chinese. Both American and Chinese notions of the relationship between enterprise and community development are changing, and I'm wondering if this global connectedness might be creating a new market for human dignity.

I'm writing this blog now on my flight from Beijing to New York, having just looked out a window into a vast white glare, mesmerized by the fissures in the landscape below: the polar ice cap! I was not alone when I peered out the window but stood in a cluster of fellow international travelers who smiled at one another in anticipation, patiently waiting our turns to peer out the small portal of the emergency exit, appreciating this miraculous perspective on our shared planet. This ice cap is shrinking, yet there was a cluster of us there from around the globe compelled into this moment of reverence by our shared humanity. Hello! Hello! Bonjour! Bonjour! Hola! Hola! Konnichiwa! Konnichiwa-wa!

When moving from activity to activity these past few weeks I sometimes plug into music to give my soul a beat to move to. I've been particularly grooving on two recent albums by Michael Franti—“the Sound of Sunshine” and “Yell Fire”—both of which successfully find hope in our potential as humans while simultaneously calling attention to destructive injustices. Franti, with his compelling beats, is one of many who give me hope that as a species we can still move forward.

I'll close with a sample of Franti's lyrics from “Everybody Ona Move (on the album, “Yell Fire”):

“Everybody ona move, everybody let's move... Big people gotta move, little people gotta move, and you don't stop, and you don't quit. Keep rockin’ it, keep stopin' it.”

A big shout out to all you social workers, health care professionals, counselors, teachers, students, entrepreneurs, politicians, chaplains, organic gardeners, mommas and poppas and brothers and sisters, bringing hope and answers and love to your corners of the world, keepin’ ona move.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Social Work

Monday morning marked the start of the 2011 International Conference on Social Work and Community Development. This was a joint conference organized by Widener and CTBU faculty that involved participants from Widener, over 50 Chinese universities, and several representatives from government ministries.

The connection between social work and government was not simply the rhetoric of speeches, but is increasingly conceived of as central for addressing pressing social issues. In other posts I’ve made observations about the effects of China’s economic restructuring on the lives of the most vulnerable within under-resourced communities. The reality is that not only has the economy in China changed since the 1980s, but governance has changed as well. As Xu Yongyang, a professor and dean from Shanghai, aptly pointed out in his speech during the opening ceremony of the conference: prior to the 1990s, in Chinese terms, there was “no separation between government and enterprise”: “Zheng–qi bu fen” (正企不分). The master narrative on this is that the state managed the economy in ways that ensured the provision of the basic needs of the population (food, housing, jobs, schools, healthcare).

In his speech, Professor Xu highlighted problems in the real-estate market in particular as leading to a “decrease in people’s feelings of happiness” with the soaring of housing prices. His PowerPoint presentation included pictures that have become iconic of China’s recent development and internationalization: the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, which housed the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympics, and the Shanghai World Financial Center, a 101-story building in the Pudong District of Shanghai. He never criticized the central government’s priorities directly, but he did point out that although in 2007 China’s GNP went from 25 billion to 33 billion, people in universities haven’t felt this growth in salaries, leading to resentment by some of China’s academics. He then added that, of China’s population of 1.3 billion, there is an estimated 842.9 million who are members of disadvantaged groups who have not benefited from development (unemployed rural and city dwellers, the disabled, the elderly, and liushou children left behind by migrant parents).

Xu went on to directly state that social work is important to the continued governance of the ruling party. According to Xu, the Party (the CCP)—no longer connected to the people via workplaces, hospitals, and schools—now lacks a platform in society and is losing its influence among the people. Xu argued that social work, in the absence of strong governmental organizations, may be the key to ensuring social stability.

I sat on the edge of my seat listening to Professor Xu speak. I know we are in Sichuan and “the emperor is far”, but sitting in the audience were social work professionals and scholars from far-flung regions of the nation: Beijing Municipality, Shanghai Municipality, Anhui Province, Guizhou Province, Yunnan Province, Tianjin Municipality, Guangdong Province, Heilongjiang Province (bordering on Siberia!), Henan Province, and the city of Nanjing. There were also a number of government representatives present from various levels of ministries of Social Affairs and Civil Affairs, as well as Party members (some of whom were also research faculty). But no one seemed to flinch, not even the interpreter who was providing accurate simultaneous translation in beautiful near-native English.

But perhaps Xu’s broad statements were no surprise to his Chinese audience because the Central government confirmed the centrality of social work as “a new way of governing” as far back as 2006 in a speech made by President Hu Jintao. This priority was reconfirmed by the Central government in the last few weeks when Hu apparently said that the “People’s Livelihood” is a pressing concern of the government (though I’m having a hard time finding the scoop on this recent pronouncement using the slow and censored internet here in Chongqing). Xu used his speech as an opportunity to suggest a rather forward-looking role that social work may play in further developing aspects of society which are essential for civil society (gongmin shehui 公民社会), and democratic rights (minzhu 民主)—yes, these were his words.

I don’t know how many social workers in China conceive of themselves as political reformers. I suspect most are absorbed and often mired in the complex world of negotiating government bureaucracies to provide client services with limited resources. But there was something convincing to me about Xu’s vision for building civil society, perhaps because I discerned in his words a thinly veiled political critique. At one point he even said, “Unfortunately there are still some government ministers who don’t understand (the importance of social work).”

Xu’s chief argument, shared by other speakers, was that social work, if done well, facilitates the civic involvement of the communities being served. One of Xu’s critiques of social work, as currently practiced, is that it often fails to preserve the dignity of the recipients of social services. He gave an example of social workers and government officials publicly posting the names of recipients, a practice that seems likely do more to shame the disadvantaged into not requesting services than to encourage them to seek assistance. I suspect this might also be a feeble attempt by social workers and government officials to prove their legitimacy by advertising their successful work. Another speaker, Wang Sibin—Chair of Peking University’s Sociology Department and head of China’s Association of Social Work Education—also mentioned the need to preserve human dignity in social services in his opening speech.

There was a link for both Xu and Wang between the concepts of human dignity and civil society: a link I find tremendously hopeful. Although both speakers were concerned with those who are not benefiting from development, Xu pushed the issue of civil society and democracy most directly. What Xu was arguing, at root, was that social work has the capacity, indeed the mission, to develop the “foundations for democracy” and “the rule of law.” He gave two examples from Shanghai: social work departments have worked with the municipal government to establish law firms at the district level where citizens might better make claims for their economic and employment rights via a legal process (as opposed to endless petitions or dangerous protests); social workers have mediated between community members and the government in the case of disputes and have defused tensions by helping build community organizations with elected leaders that meet the needs of communities better than the government.

Xu presented an interesting concept of the relationship between government and society. He advocates a “social management” model of “small government, big society” (xiao zhengfu, da shehui 小政府大社会), but this isn’t the American model of a thousand points of light funded exclusively by philanthropists and charities. He wants the government to step up and pay for an expansion of social services and training programs for social workers (housed in universities), essentially arguing for more public money to invest in civil society while simultaneously relaxing governmental controls (he also argues that private enterprise needs to put more into social services—via taxes, or via philanthropy?).

Xu held Shanghai up as an example of effective social management (though he doesn’t think Shanghai is quite there yet). The municipal government apparently pays for social services out of its own budget rather than subsidizing services through regressive public lotteries (which is how these services are paid for in Chongqing and Shenzhen). In addition to this funding, Shanghai also encourages the creation of nonprofits and NGOs, giving 200,000 yuan over 3 years to help incubate newly formed social work NGOS. There are other initiatives throughout the nation. Shenzhen helps incubate nonprofits by decreasing taxes and by providing organizations with subsidies for office space. According to a representative from Chongqing’s Ministry of Civil Affairs, the government has created a campaign to churn out 10,000 new social workers a year. Shenzhen alone is working towards meeting this challenge by hiring 800 new social workers this year and aiming to increase that number to 1200 by next year.

All this to say, there was a reason these social workers were conferencing together. Their gathering was timely, and by my observations, productive. They were here to share concrete ideas with international colleagues on how to better develop the profession of social work, how to better train personnel, and how to provide better interventions in local communities. They may not consider themselves revolutionaries, but I’m convinced social reform is taking place.

I saw some very encouraging panels, which included a presentation on the healing, teaching and research roles of conducting life narratives and “reminiscence therapy” in elder communities; models of service learning as tools for developing civic engagement in both social work students and community members; the role of social work in providing sexual health education (which was previously provided by family planning cadres, and now isn’t really provided at all, even in the face of rising rates of HIV and other STDs); and the benefits of teams of caregivers of high-need autism patients creating “biographical timelines” of their patients to increase caregiver empathy and produce more effective strategies of intervention.

I find it curious that the Chinese think so highly of the American model of social work. I’ve wondered why they haven’t looked to the Netherlands or other European models as seriously in their quest for strategies of “social management.” So often all I see from the lives of people I meet or read about in the newspaper are the failures of American social services and the suffering and hopelessness of under-resourced communities. I appreciated this glimpse into an ideal— a shared vision of social reform put forth by international scholars and practitioners in a profession that values empathy and that is committed to righting social injustices and bringing support to the underprivileged. I appreciated the exchange of tangible ideas and the sharing of results, confirmed in research, by creative and hopeful individuals.

Most of all, I think I appreciated Professor Xu’s acknowledgement that we’re “living beyond capitalism and beyond socialism” and that we need to take seriously the social problems that have emerged with rapid development. I appreciate his public conviction that whatever solutions we come up with must privilege the preservation of human dignity and the fostering of civil society. I’m still sitting on the edge of my seat: what will the future of social work look like as it develops, globally, with Chinese characteristics?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


It’s been a fast few days of activity and difficult days for blogging. Earlier this week I attended the International Conference on Social Work and Community Development—an incredible experience, which I’ll blog about soon. But before then I want to share a little something from my past weekend.

Saturday the CTBU social work faculty took Widener faculty out for a day in the countryside: to Rongchang County. I’ve never been to Rongchang before, but it holds a place in my mental map because I’ve encountered it in the archives and know at least one children’s home existed there during the war with Japan. One of the CTBU social work students—Tianna— is from Rongchang, and she had spent a semester at Widener and had even eaten my husband’s sour cream waffles one Saturday morning in early autumn and attended our borough’s annual rummage sale. Tianna’s parents are both well-connected county government officials, and they were very happy to host us.

We rode in a bus, about 2 hours from CTBU and urban Chongqing, stopping briefly to eat a Chinese breakfast once we entered Rongchang: pugaimian 铺盖面, a delicious handmade local noodle served in a rich broth. I like to eat noodles the Chongqing way, with a bit of hot sauce added. Yum.

We then proceeded to make 3 stops at 3 different places of worship: Two Catholic abbeys, founded by French missionaries in 1905; and one Buddhist Temple founded during the Song dynasty.

I love entering places of worship and sacred places of all kinds, but especially when I am in China. Over the years, I’ve visited many temples and holy sites in China: Buddhist, Daoist, Confucian, shrines to city gods and to local deities. Regardless of the faith or denomination, I feel a calm receptiveness within me when I enter these spaces. There is something profoundly reassuring to me that humans create places of prayer and worship, and I enter these spaces with gratitude and reverence. There is often something of myself restored at these altars, and often something of myself I leave behind as I exit.

But this weekend’s visits were particularly special to me: two Catholic abbeys, with altars where I am most truly at home. We were guided up the long staircase to the first abbey by a friend of Tianna’s father, a Catholic with the surname Xu who wears a rosary around his neck, like a necklace. He nodded, warmly, when I showed him the rosary I carry in my iPod case, a gift from brother, from Lourdes. This first abbey we visited is called Zhen Yuan Tang 真原堂 and is the church where Mr. Xu worships. It’s a large parish, as there are 4,000 Catholics in a township with a population of about 40,000. I was surprised by this number, as well as by the pictures of Pope Benedict overlooking us from all sides: two on either side of the altar, and one in the back of the church.

The church has many Chinese characteristics to it, including decorative strings of light considered festive and celebratory at Chinese banquets and restaurants, but which I found loud in this setting (perhaps because of my associations with Chinese banquets and restaurants?). But I soon overcame my resistance to these lights when I recognized them for what they are: a warm Chinese welcome to a banquet of another kind.

We had very little time there, but I took in what I could: the long wooden pews where I know so many before me, in the midst of life’s struggles, have found themselves on their knees; the statue of Mary, her palms folded in prayer and her face open to God’s will; and the statue of Christ pointing to his wounded heart, still open to the world in healing and in mercy. Most newly-built Catholic churches in the U.S. are beautiful spaces of high ceilings bright with natural light, but there is something I love about older churches and their shadowy recesses. It always feels miraculous to me when the daylight finds a way through. I walked slowly around the church, pulling from our group where I could, sitting or kneeling where and when it felt right, traversing those boundaries between shadow and light, finding my way into worship.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Left Behind

Yesterday the Social Work faculty of Chongqing Technology and Business University (CTBU) took Paula, Travis, Robin and me to visit two schools for migrant children. The schools are both in Jiangjing District (江净区) in the countryside, about an hour and a half from the Chongqing city center. When I heard that the schools were for “migrant children,” what I pictured was something similar to what I have heard exists in Beijing and other large cities in China: a place where rural children who have migrated to the city with their parents can get an education even though they do not have a Beijing household registration. What I imagined was that the children themselves were migrants. But I had the situation flipped on its head. The children at the “migrant schools” we saw yesterday are those whose parents have left the countryside to work in cities, leaving their children behind. The children generally live with grandparents or other relatives, who still work the agricultural fields, maintaining the family’s rights to cultivate that land. The Social Work faculty kept referring to these children in their limited English as “migrant children” or “stay-at-home” children, further confusing me as I tried to sort out just who this population of children is (are they home schooled?). In Chinese they are called “liúshǒu értóng” (留守儿童)—a particularly poignant phrase to the historically minded because liúshǒu conjures up the image of government loyalists remaining in place, holding down the empire in the case of an absent or fleeing emperor. The term literally means to stay behind and take care of things.

According to the All China Women’s Federation, there were 50 million liúshǒu children in China in 2010. In Chongqing, 36.9% of the total students enrolled in school are liúshǒu children. In Jiangjing District alone, these children number 40,000 (these stats come from Dean Li, the Dean of CTBU’s School of Social Work). This number, like many stats that attempt to track the sweeping social changes accompanying China’s rapid development and modernization, is staggering. There are 40,000 children in Jiangjing District who have been counted (because they happen to be in the school system) whose parents have sought a better life for their children by leaving behind their rural homes to earn wages in cities far from home: working in factories, busing tables in restaurants, driving trucks, sweeping floors, cleaning houses or hotels or the faces of other people’s children. If lucky, they see their children once a year for about two weeks for Chinese New Year. But according to the social workers I spoke with yesterday, many of these parents can’t even make it back once a year and have not seen their children for two years or longer.

CTBU Social Work faculty has developed a collaboration with the Jiangjing District government to provide support services for the children and their caregivers who have remained behind. The district government has a set of policies in place with three main objectives: to provide room and board at schools for liúshǒu children; to form “family units” at school to act as substitute parents; and to provide food and nutritional supplements to the children. But they have few resources, both in terms of money and trained personnel, to help them carry out these objectives.

China’s social welfare system is in a huge state of transition. The former systems of social support that had been formulated post-revolution are no longer in place and the sweeping social changes that have occurred since reform and opening have the potential to destabilize the current political structure. Many municipal and provincial governments are looking internationally for models to help address these concerns, and social work as practiced in America is being explored.

So the district government has reached out to China’s relatively new schools of social work for strategies and solutions. CTBU sends teams of social work students, supervised by faculty, to 5 schools in the district with high populations of liúshǒu children. The teams provide support services to help meet the cognitive, emotional, social, and behavioral challenges of this particular population of children.

The first school we visited was the Zhiping Middle School (支坪中学) in the township of Zhiping. This is a huge school of close to 1,000 students and a staff of 80 teachers, and about 45% of the students are liúshǒu children who board at the school. CTBU’s support teams consist of 4 Social Work students who come to reside at the school for one month at a time. After one month’s time, a new support team rotates in so that there is some support team present for 5 consecutive months out of the school year. These young social workers in training do a tremendous amount of work. They operate as case managers for targeted children, they provide counseling, maintain case files, conduct home visits, supervise afternoon enrichment programs, and plan and conduct special classes.

The programs I saw at the school were impressive. Besides the expected work of data collection and case management, there was one chief intervention I could identify that seemed unique in the Chinese approach to providing social support for these children. My friend, Travis, summed it up aptly: “Their chief intervention is to build EQ (emotional intelligence).” When we asked the social work students what main concerns these children face they all mentioned that children were sad, bereaved, confused, and angry and this array of emotions impacts their cognitive and social development. The social work team values counseling where they place an emphasis on “sincere and intent listening.” They also have a number of activities in place to facilitate communication between the children and their teachers and the children and their parents. There is message board that begins with “I want you to know…” and these include such communications as “Teachers, I want you to know I often miss my parents,” and “Mom and Dad, I want you to know you shouldn’t be so strict with me because right now I am feeling depressed.”

The social workers stress writing down feelings and wishes as an important tool. There are boxes around the school where children may place their thoughts and feelings. There is also a “hope and feeling tree” where children may post their fears and wishes at the end of a counseling session. Some of the wishes read like notes to Santa Claus: “I wish I could have an English dictionary” or “I wish I could have a bicycle.” But there were others that caused me to turn away and blink my eyelids rapidly, something I do to ward off unexpected tears: “I hope everyone in my family is safe” and “I’m worried my father will never come home.”

The social work teams feel strongly that these kinds of interventions have produced results. They had examples of children who were withdrawn and wouldn’t talk to anyone who are now much more verbal and expressive. The have seen children whose grades have improved since counseling. The school headmaster also gave an example of a parent who called the school expressing profound appreciation, saying, “My child would never call me on the phone, he was so angry at me. But last week he called me and we spoke for 20 minutes.”

One thing that is striking to me in the Chinese approach to social support is the emphasis on creating family models in the absence of families. This is something I’ve observed in my own research on orphanages in war-torn China, but it is interesting to me that this model has persisted well beyond the war years, when so many children were orphaned and without families. Chinese social reformers in the 1930s and 1940s felt strongly that children without families were at great risk to society because they might not have the opportunity to experience close emotional bonds of love and loyalty. The solution to this was thought to be to replicate family ties within child welfare institutions: for teachers and child care workers to love children and to encourage the children to love them back in small family-like units. I’m amazed at the persistence of this model in present-day China. The children call the social work students “big sister” and “big brother.” The children are divided into small groups with a teacher as the head, and refer to this teacher as their àixīn māma 爱心妈妈 (compassionate mother). The staff talks a great deal about “loving the children,” “opening our hearts” to the children and about the children “opening their hearts” to others.

Love is not a dirty word in Chinese social work; in fact, it’s the very foundation of what the staff believes works best in their system. I saw a great deal of love around me at the two schools I visited yesterday. And I saw a great deal of poverty as well: children without shoes, poorly equipped classrooms, tattered clothing and basketball hoops without nets. I scratch my head, I hold my heart, pained by the gaps in the system. Poverty has not disappeared from rural China, but the parents have. Families are broken, in chase of a dream.

In our present day world, how often and in what myriad ways do parents depart in chase of a dream? Yesterday morning, before heading for the migrant schools, I Skyped my daughters, safe at Helen and Joel’s in their evening hours, winding down their day before dinner. ZZ was still in her clothes from ballet, and eager to show me a picture she had drawn. FF was working on her homework, less eager than her sister to engage me, reluctant to share anything she deemed trivial, wanting me only to help write her sentences for spelling. She didn't know the meaning of one of her spelling words: punishment. I smiled to myself at the discovery of this gap in her vocabulary, smugly considering this a triumph of my parenting: my children know discipline, but not punishment?

Yet, tonight, as I write this, I’m feeling less smug. For the last three Springs I’ve spent the month of May away, far from my girls and the end of their school years. There is always a tipping point in this separation, a little over a week before my return—that point I feel I’ve been gone too long and my heart goes racing home. How do these other parents bear it? What tricks must they play with their minds and their hearts to continue to stay away? How long is too long? Which causes the greater injury: the length of time families are apart or the closing of the heart against the pain of separation?

Tonight I am longing for my daughters. I know they are happy with our friends, I know they are safe, but I also know it hurts to be left behind. I’m thinking of the CTBU staff’s chief interventions—the attention paid to emotional intelligence—hoping that our attentiveness to this in our children will foster their open hearts despite any unintentional infliction of pain.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Panda Love

This past weekend we traveled to Chengdu, the location of the National Panda Breeding Center. It’s no joke that pandas need help breeding. Apparently, if we’re to believe the short informational video that accompanied the exhibits, if left to their own devices, these adorably rotund animals would live adult lives as solitary creatures. They are anti-social by nature, and the females are apparently finicky about their choice of mates. When estrus arrives at about the age of five, they announce this to the rest of the panda world by crying loudly, urinating frequently, and rubbing against the trees and rocks of their surrounding territory inviting suitors, who they then frequently reject biting and batting at their heels. They are also prone to false pregnancies, which take them out of the dating game during peak season, further jeopardizing their fertility.

The ladies apparently aren’t solely to blame for these romantic blunders. The video I saw last year at the Center suggested that males were also often responsible for failing to consummate what might have been a successful mating, simply due to the inadequate size of their members. Seriously. For some reason this delicate detail has since been omitted from last year’s video.

But even when successful mating occurs, the gestation period and early infancy of baby pandas are fraught with hazards. Newborns weigh an average of 100 grams, which is about one-one thousandth the weight of the average mother. According to the narrator of the film (who spoke with a very authoritative, albeit prim-sounding British accent), this average birth weight means that all baby pandas are born premature and simply can’t survive without tremendous support and protection.

Looking at the images of these newbies on the screen, I’m convinced. They have that same kind of primordial fragility I see in newly hatched baby birds: eyes shut tight, skin hairless and nearly translucent. But unlike most birds, who nest and guard their eggs, and who set off to forage just as soon as their babies are hatched, panda mothers apparently rarely possess any inherent maternal instincts. The video showed one mother batting her squeaking cub around at birth; her large and clumsy paw appearing twice the size of the cub, which looked something akin to a wet rodent. Fortunately an expert at the breeding center jumped in and retrieved the cub before any damage was done. The video did reassure us that mothers get better and better at this after ten years of breeding. The experienced mother will constantly hug and lick her cub for the first 33 weeks, and the baby will remain with the mother for a year and a half before venturing far from her side. But with a worldwide panda population of only 2,000, who has time to wait ten years for the aging mother to figure out the fundamentals of an attachment style of parenting?

The Panda Breeding Center is a full-service matchmaking and maternal care facility. The pandas no longer need to worry about the pesky details of courtship and childcare. In fact, from what I could glean from the video, the pandas there are apparently virgins, their reproductive functions facilitated by high tech equipment and gloved technicians. According to the narrator, when the panda experts first began experimenting with artificial insemination for pandas they tried a method called “artificial semen collection combined with anesthetization” but this didn’t work very well (no kidding…). Now they use a high-tech method called “massage combined with electric stimulation semen collection” which is apparently much more successful. Yes, I sat through this video with my students giggling on either side of me, and yes, the narrator really did say those exact words in a prim yet authoritative British accent. And yes, our dean of Social Work really did blurt out “Do they mean a vibrator?” resulting in our row erupting in laughter.

It is stunning to me that pandas have been on this planet for 8 million years. The average lifespan of a species is 5 million years. And I won’t even get into what it takes to actually feed these celibate vegetarians. They really are around against all odds.

Good thing they are so dang cute. When they eat, they lie on their backs and gnaw on bamboo stalks held between their clumsy paws, piles of stems and leaves mounting on their pillowed tummies. When admiring spectators focus their cameras they cock their large round heads and stare with expressions that look both winsome and worried. The students and I stood at one enclosure wall, hearts beating wildly, as a sleeping baby panda rocked precariously on a dangerously high and narrow limb, rock-a-bye panda ready to flop. Everyone in our crowd stood poised and ready to leap into that enclosure to catch a falling cub. Apparently the male college business majors of our species possess maternal instincts that far surpass those of your average panda mama. We took picture after picture (my iPhone camera doesn’t do these creatures justice), and many of the students purchased large, cozy panda-shaped gifts to tote home to their boyfriends and girlfriends and siblings and parents. What can I say, we’re soft that way. And I have no doubt the panda species will survive into the future, celibate and all.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


May 15, 2011

Friday morning a woman named Zhang gave us an introduction to Chinese tea culture unlike any lesson I’ve ever heard on tea. The setting was the teahouse near the trailhead leading to the peak of the mountain behind campus. The trailhead itself is quite a ways up the mountain, and the teahouse is surrounded by trees whose branches provide a canopy of shade for the outdoor sitting areas. There was no need for shade on this misty morning. We sat outside on rattan chairs, our teapots and cups set up in pairs on matching tables.

Most introductions I’ve heard to Chinese tea culture have focused on the details of the cultivation of the tea, the history of tea in China, the various categories of tea, and the implements used in the tea ceremony. But Zhang turned her attention to the meaning of the practice itself, answering a question that I know is often on the minds of Americans who may witness what seems to be a rather fussy way to consume a beverage: What’s the point of all this ritual?

Zhang never asked this question directly, but everything she taught us came back to one essential meaning: You can drink tea to become a better person. Like any ritual done purposefully, the tools and gestures that are a part of tea culture are an opportunity for practitioners to transcend the mundane. According to Zhang, if you bring awareness to your preparation and drinking of tea, you will experience yourself as being in greater harmony with nature and more connected to others.

Every detail of Zhang’s tea practice is steeped in meaning. The clothing she and her assistants wear when preparing and serving tea is traditional tea clothing (chafu 茶服) made of all natural fibers (cotton and hemp) so they can move and sit comfortably and without distraction. Practitioners wear no perfume or makeup that might interfere with the servers’ or drinkers’ experience of the aroma of the tea. The tablecloths and tea towels Zhang uses are also made of natural fibers, and she rests the bamboo utensils on a small hand-painted stone. Nearly everything that touched the tea table had been handmade by Zhang or one of her friends.

Zhang also pointed out that the teapots and cups she uses are part of the natural world, made of clay. The three-piece cup set—lid, cup, and base—are representative of the harmony of heaven, man, and earth. Zhang had hung a scroll behind the tea table painted by a friend with a simple five character phrase capturing the essence of Zhang’s approach to tea: ren zai cao mu jian (人在草木). Humans sitting amongst grass and trees. These are the radicals that form the character for tea: cha ().

I don’t know enough about the history of tea ritual in China to know how closely this meaning of Zhang’s conforms with the significance this ceremony has held for past practitioners. But the meaning Zhang conveyed to us that morning was imbued, for me, with modern and personal significance. My morning getting to the teahouse bore many strains of the modern era. I had missed breakfast—a rarity for me—as I had rushed to answer emails and download photos and student blogs in preparation for our departure for a weekend jaunt to Chengdu later in the day. Technicians had swarmed the suite of our door room as they tried to fix my roommate’s problem connecting to the Internet. I bounced from one task to the other, all the while annoyed that the presence of the techies was interfering with my ability to shower. Hungry and harried, I boarded the bus that carried us up the mountain, regretful my morning did not include time enough to hike the hill myself.

Zhang says that the aroma and taste of tea has the power to conjure up images if you imbibe these in a state of quietude. When she drinks white tea she is transported to her childhood: she thinks of her mother, a teacher, grading papers under a white lamp deep into the night. Fatigued by the pace and demands of my morning, I took Zhang up on her invitation to partake in transforming the moment. I brought my cup to my lips and breathed the earthy aroma of pu’er tea. Looking into my cup, I saw the limbs of the trees above me reflected in the amber liquid, their lush green arms reaching gently from a pale grey sky, guiding me into the loamy quietude of the present.

Friday, May 13, 2011


May 12

Yesterday the BBC ran a story on child trafficking in Hunan province. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13350757) Headlines highlighting children’s vulnerabilities in the modern age frequently catch my eye, but this story had a particularly personal twist: the cases occurred ten years ago and the commoditized children were exported as international adoptees, placed primarily with families in the United States and Europe. Our family is an adoptive family and both of my daughters began their lives in Chinese “orphanages.” I say they began their lives there, but that’s not really true. They had lives before these orphanages, but we don’t know specifically where they began their lives, though we have convincing evidence from social welfare records that both were abandoned as newborns. My husband and I have visited the abandonment sites of both of our daughters, have stood there sketching together the details of the mornings in which they were found, trying to imagine the sequence of events, the first known facts to make the records in their very young lives. The start of their histories as we know them began with police records documenting each girl’s founding. We’ve photographed and filmed these spaces and the surrounding venues, paying attention to details—signs and faces, archways and alleys—trying to fix for them, in images, something of this lost time.

My oldest daughter is nine years old. The Hunan cases occurred ten years ago, far from Chongqing, where she was found and where I am now writing.

My reception of this news of the child trafficking of international adoptees is complex. One of the emotions many adoptive parents contend with at one time or another is the fear that someday they will be told that their child is not really theirs. We take all kinds of precautions to mitigate this fear; the chief precaution being that we do everything possible in the adoption process to ensure that the child we embrace as our own has truly been relinquished by anyone else who may have once claimed parental rights. We do our research, we don’t take short cuts, we dot our i’s, we cross our t’s. This is what we do to protect ourselves as parents and to ensure birthparents and parentless children are not being exploited.

But my parental rights and the rights of birthparents aren’t my primary concern when I hear of this case. As an adult adoptee who has “been there,” so to speak, wrestling as a child with an unknown past, I have an additional concern. I don’t want my children (and other adoptees) to fear that anyone from their pasts may re-emerge to lay claim to them, or that anyone may dare to tell them that they do not belong where they have come to belong. With our first adoption we were especially zealous, as many first-time parents tend to be. When we brought our daughter back to the U.S. we had a huge file of papers documenting our journey as a family that included her Chinese birth certificate, her immigration visa, and her Chinese adoption papers. To these we added, over subsequent months, an American birth certificate issued by the state of California showing us as her parents, an American Social Security card, and an American passport. Not stopping there, we took the extra steps to “readopt” through the American court system, documenting our parentage and her daughterhood in every way possible so that no county agency, or state agency, or federal agency or international agency, disconnected from any other bureaucracy, may ever—in the case of a will or a custody battle or a claim to life insurance benefits or to a deed on a house or to guardianship of her aged and demented parents or a younger orphaned sibling—will ever try to strip her of her daughterhood, her claim to us as her forever parents, or her claim to any subsequent children of ours as her forever siblings. In sum, adoptive parents can be a little paranoid, recognizing, from sobering experience, that not everyone in the world sees adoptive families as real families. And this adult adoptee, turned adoptive parent, is especially vigilant about ensuring my daughters are secure in their knowledge that they belong in the family where they belong.

So the first place I go with the news of child trafficking ten years ago, down river, is to how my daughters and their cohort of adoptee friends might receive comments from well-meaning others on this news, if and when they hear the commentary. I have no idea if the American media has picked this story up, but recalling the coverage of the Russian adoptee sent back to Russia a few years ago, I’m apprehensive. I’m quick to imagine the confusion it will stir, the conclusions people may leap to, and the damage this will do to popular understandings of real families, forged through adoption, like my own.

Far from home, with my husband about to depart from our home front on a separate trip to China, I hastily alert our dear friends who will be caring for the girls in our absence, of a possible contingency plan in the remote case that this news of child trafficking enters our daughters’ media-shielded lives.

I sent an email, in an attempt to wrest control over a complex narrative.

Apparently officials enforcing the family planning policy took at least 20 over-quota babies from their families and sold them to local orphanages. These babies were then adopted internationally. Heart-breaking. Chilling. One baby was apparently an only child and ‘mistakenly’ confiscated. I don't know if this has hit the American press, or to what extent it will be, but I wanted to give you a heads-up in case our girls get word of this in the next couple weeks.

Some facts for you as adults to process this. This seems to be a legitimate story (not just hype), covered in Chinese press with an official investigation. This also seems to be an isolated case. I have never heard of any other stories of baby trafficking associated with the one-child policy. This is also a case that occurred far from the birthplaces of either of our girls, and no such stories have ever broken about their birth areas. There was absolutely no shortage of abandoned infant girls in the orphanages where our girls started out, and conversations with staff there at the time of their adoptions indicate daily abandonments of infant girls at the orphanage gates and a staff overwhelmed dealing with this. We also have very specific finding information for both girls that I think credibly supports the fact of their abandonment.

If the girls do happen to get wind of this, here are the following talking points I would take:

  • Validation of the sadness and scariness of this situation and their feelings about this, whatever these may be (primary focus would be on this).
  • Reassurance that this was a very small number of babies far from the cities where they were found.
  • Reminders that we have information about their own abandonment and a reminder of the facts, as we know them (I'd give them the chance for them to tell me their stories, as they understand them).
  • Opportunity for them to ask any questions they may have, express concerns, etc.
  • If it feels right, opening up a conversation about whom they imagine their birthparents to be (a tangible tool for ZZ would be to draw a picture or write an imaginary letter).

I seriously doubt this will come up when we're gone, but is likely to be a more longer term issue to deal with, as I suspect some of the American public will extrapolate from this story that all Chinese adoptees were stolen babies.

The email was sent and lovingly received. There is a plan in place for my daughters, if they need it, freeing me up a bit to consider these other Chinese babies, those trafficked years ago, those shattered and heartbroken families, and the adoptive parents who are unknowingly participants in this loss.

The truth is, Chinese girl babies are often in my sights and on my mind when I go through my days in Chongqing. I feel a special rootedness in the nexus of these rivers as my daughter’s birthplace and as the city in which, within the Ministry of Civil Affairs, she made me a mother. I think a lot about her origins, about what might have been hers here, and about her cohort of peers whose lives remain here. I pass Chinese girl babies everywhere, held and coddled and cherished in the arms of mothers and fathers and ayis and grandparents: claimed and beloved as I cherish my own daughters, my own heart’s treasures. I talk to these babies all the time, mostly in standard Mandarin, but occasionally with expressions in the limited Chongqing dialect I know and learned when I walked here with my own baby daughter in arms, a proud momma accepting the compliments and admirations locals lavished on my daughter and me. It was in Chongqing I first learned how Chinese talk to babies and their mothers, being the recipient of the locals’ attention: “Look how cute she is!” “Look how obedient!” “How fat she is!” “How calm and peaceful!” “How many months is she?” “She’s growing so well!” “Give auntie a smile!” “Come let grandma hold you!” “Blow auntie a kiss!” “Wave uncle bye-bye.” And this last, bittersweet comment: “She’s a very lucky baby.”

I talk to Chinese babies everywhere I go. I gently touch their cheeks and hold my hands out to them, palms turned upward, inviting them into my embrace as any doting Chinese stranger would. I notice the girl babies in particular, their sex made evident through their split pants, as they are gently coddled in their caregivers’ laps and arms. And I talk to their parents and grandparents, who proudly and lovingly hold their bundled daughters, unaccustomed to strollers—who play with them and dote on them and scold them and feed them and place their hopes and dreams in them. I celebrate each and every one of these beloved daughters, convinced they are the vast majority of the girl babies in China.

Don’t ever believe someone who tells you that the Chinese don’t love their girl babies. Don’t ever be tempted to believe that a Chinese girl baby, born to an impoverished and uneducated family during a difficult historical moment, is better off raised in a more privileged family in America. My heart breaks for those 20 birth families we know of, who a decade ago were unjustly and wrongly stripped of their precious daughters. My heart breaks for those daughters, twice over, who must once again rewrite their histories and re-forge their sense of belonging to accommodate a new truth. And my heart breaks for the parents who have loved and raised their daughters and have done all they could to give their girls a secure sense of love and belonging in their world. But these adoptions, carried out unknowingly through child trafficking—these are the exceptions—even more exceptional than the abandonments, carried out under desperate circumstances during desperate times, by folks who might otherwise love and embrace that which they could call their own.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Stats and Alleys

Yesterday morning we attended a lecture on Chongqing, with a particular focus on the region’s growth and development since Chongqing was established as a municipality in 2002. This place has a population nearly the same size as Canada: 31.44 million, living in an area of 82,400 square miles! (I took a few notes). And here is a stat for my peak-loving husband. Can you guess the highest elevation?
Close. :-)

2769.8 meters (9087 ft.)

I wish I could tell you just where that is, but I’m blocked from the Chinese government’s forestry site, and loading Google Earth is just way too slow. :-)

But here in the valleys, this place is hopping, with a growth rate of 12.6% in 2009 (the average in China was 8.7%). We’re talking about a place with 10,000 factories, 1.2 million staff—automobiles, motorcycles, chemicals, electronics—all the essentials for a modern industrial base.

When I hear these stats, I want to head for the hills. My lungs hurt just contemplating it. Yet the reality is that it is this industrial growth that funds such programs as the Chongqing Technology and Business University’s Language and Culture Exchange that brought my students and me here in the first place. But the stats still leave me reeling.

Fortunately I didn’t have to look long or far for a slice of the old Chongqing to chase down my lecture on the new Chongqing. In the spirit of letting others do the packing for me, I followed my colleague, Mary, to lunch, along with three of our other colleague-friends. I’m usually the one who takes command of meals when we’re all out and about together, probably to the detriment of my friends who are trying to utilize their growing Chinese vocabulary (Mary and Pat have been taking Mandarin at Widener for the past year).

Mary, who has a great sense of direction, led us down a few narrow alleys behind the teacher’s canteen, where we normally catch a quick lunch, and voila, we were in another world. Bang bang men with their muscular calves carried heavy baskets of goods tied to either ends of poles balanced across their shoulders. Majiang tables sat at tiny store fronts, and rows of red towels hung strung to dry outside of barbershops. And most impressive: steam rose from bamboo baskets set on glowing coals. Yum. We were not disappointed with our foraged lunch.

Later, on a city tour, we posed outside the Great Hall of the People—modeled after Beijing’s Temple of Heaven. The Great Hall of the People looks somehow small sitting across the way from the more recent Three Gorges Museum, set in a massive public square.

My bet is the Three Gorges Museum sells more entry tickets than the Great Hall, which is an architectural wonder. I’ll have to check on those stats.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


I hate packing for trips, no matter how short. The entire process stresses me out. There is something about staring at a zippered box with borders—with its finite measurements and shallow pockets—that makes me dizzy. I feel somehow the box is asking me to make choices, to commit to some things and not others. To pre-plan, to be selective, to make judgments, to let go. In that one exercise of packing my bags I’m forced to contend with the limits of both time and space and this always unsettles me. I use my fingers to count the days I’ll be away and then I count my socks and underwear. But wait, now I have to consider how frequently I’ll be able to do laundry, or whether I will ever be in one place long enough for it to dry, or if I can pay a service to do laundry (and if the destination is China, will they even wash my underwear, or do I have to pack something I can hand-wash and easily dry?).

My friend, Joe S-D, practice-packs days (sometimes weeks) before he goes somewhere. One day in Chengdu he actually declined my invitation to dinner because he needed to practice-pack for an upcoming trip to Hong Kong. I totally got it—the friendship was sealed. My approach to this confrontation with impermanence is the opposite of Joe’s advance deliberations and negotiations over limits. I always wait until the last minute, which usually drives my husband and kids batty. This is my way of pretending it doesn’t matter, that I can live with or without anything, when all the while I am highly attached and end up packing deep into the night before leaving for most trips. I don’t practice-pack, but I “practice dress”, “practice read,” “practice write,” “practice work,” “practice giving gifts,” “practice getting sick,” “practice shower,” until I’m pretty much worn out by my imagined trip before I even zip the suitcase shut.

The first thing I do when I arrive anywhere is unpack. I love unpacking, even if it’s just for the night. Sometimes I unpack just so I can stand in awe of the sparseness of my life on the road, regardless of the stress it took to arrive there. I love the way my clothes never occupy more than a drawer or a portion of a closet, the way my toiletries hang on a hook near the shower, and my computer sits, solitary, on an uncluttered desk. I rarely fret about something left behind; I’m always happy, ultimately, to be stripped of dross.

We’ve only been in Chongqing for two days, and I’ve spent more time in my bare room since arriving than I’ve ever done my first few days with a student group in Chongqing. I have my faculty colleagues to thank for this, who have encouraged me to take care of my splinted hand and be selective of how and when I involve myself with the students. This year, more than ever, we’re sharing the load of trip logistics and student mentorship and we’re being creative about giving each other down time (justified as “work time”). I’m trying, I suppose, to pack and unpack my days as I would a suitcase, confronting the limits of time and space.

Yesterday morning I helped students figure out how to find food they could stomach for Chinese breakfast, and then attended a welcome ceremony and lunched with students and faculty friends. Rather than go on a campus tour with students, I spent the afternoon doing some much-needed physical therapy with my hand in my air-conditioned room, then wrote, Skyped by sister, emailed my husband, and napped. By the time I emerged from my room a mere 20 minutes before we were scheduled to depart for a welcome dinner, the swelling in my hand had been significantly reduced, but my work of the afternoon was apparently not quite done. I was greeted by students, streaming the hallways dressed in finery, who chided me for still wearing the program t-shirt and pants I’d worn to the opening ceremony. Clearly the group decided we were dressing up, and they waved me back to my room to clean up. Leadership had happened, despite my napping. I made a choice between my two un-packed dresses, two necklaces zipped into my toiletries, and my two shades of lipstick. Done.

There is nothing my students seem to stress about more before our trip than packing. All semester, this worried them. In January, after covering some content about Chinese culture in one of the required pre-trip courses, Paula and I asked the students if they had any questions, and of course they did: about packing. Internally, I rolled my eyes, while all the while I tried to reassure them it would all work out and their needs would be met. It probably also didn’t help matters that we didn’t get around to posting a packing list until a month before we were scheduled to depart. Somewhere on that list it said to pack an outfit or two for a dinner or party.

I love the energy I felt in that hallway last night—the fuss the students were making over one another’s appearance, the anticipation of their evening ahead, tempered with the apprehension that they may not be wearing the right stuff. I love the way they purposefully directed me back to my room to get with their program; to reconsider the possibilities packed into my box with its limits.

Space and time as we know it are finite. No wonder I tremble at my empty suitcase and at my still-crippled hand. My hours, free of their daily commitments, still number 24 at the end of the day, and beg somehow to be filled with intention. I’m experimenting, for these few days at least, with packing my days less (and letting others do some packing for me?), trying to remember that, when all is said and done, I rarely fret that something was left behind.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Jet Lag

May 9th, 2011

I’m in Chongqing now, up earlier than expected, enjoying the chorus of birds outside my window, which grows in numbers with the brightening light. There is a certain ease that comes with the liminal haze of jet lag, a particular wandering of thought that is both aimless and exploratory within the ebb and flow of travel.

Why do birds sing with the onset of dawn? How did these winged creatures first learn their songs?

This is my first day typing two-handed, brace-free, since displacing a bone in my hand “figure skating” in the last days of winter. After some high-tech carpentry to repair the damage, I’m four weeks post-op and my fingers are ready to move. Writing is now therapy of a sort, stretching and strengthening the muscles and tendons that tightened and atrophied after weeks of casts and splints.

But the process is slow, as most things have been one-handed, and dawn has launched into morning since I typed that first paragraph, thinking of the birds. The grey light is now white, and the birds have nearly quieted, over-ridden by the music of humans issuing from loudspeakers lodged somewhere at the primary school beyond the walls of the university. “Unchained Melody” enters my world, shattering the haze, and though the tempo is languid the urgency of the words themselves, let alone the volume, are enough to awaken the entire campus: “oh my love my darling, I’ve hungered for your touch…”

I wince, thinking of a few home sick students, and I wonder how they will greet this invasion into their sleep-worlds—assuming most of them are still sleeping. They will likely bring humor to their processing of even this; in fact, all bets are they will crack me up. This is an adventurous and resilient crew and seems to be doing exceptionally well, despite Chongqing’s unseasonal heat upon our arrival (95 degrees Fahrenheit), the general disorientation of unfamiliar language and food, and the lingering jet lag.

We are starting our fifth day in China, having arrived first in Beijing, and today is our first full day in Chongqing. In Beijing we stayed at the North Garden Hotel in Wangfujing—a wealthy and developed shopping area within walking distance of Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. Our accommodations were comfortable in Beijing, but our days were packed. We had two full days to see what could of the city and we were selective in our activities.

Here are some high points from my time in Beijing:

Destination: Mutianyu, a more remote and wooded section of the Wall than the more popular Badaling. It’s about a two-hour drive to get there, but it’s worth the extra 30 minutes or so of road time. In addition to a lovely hike up the mountain before arriving at the Wall —traversing a corridor of gardens and then a wooded trail—this location has the additional appeal of 40 Yuan toboggan rides on the way down. Fun! (Even one-handed) I loved introducing our group to this place and watching them take it all in—their bodies and minds thoroughly engaged. I always worry about our Beijing experience being either too comfortable or too touristy, perhaps giving the students a warped sense of how many Chinese truly live. Yet I’m occasionally happily surprised at the genuine human interactions we manage to have interspersed with the more predictable commercial exchanges. One such encounter occurred when hiking along the top of the Wall when Paula (my dear friend and Dean of Social Work at Widener) and a handful of students and I stopped to buy water from a vendor camped out there. She was a woman who looked to be in her early 40s, though I suspect she was younger, but appeared more weathered by the circumstances of her life. She was selling Mao-styled green khaki visored hats with red stars on the fronts, and she herself was clothed in an ill-fitting PLA uniform. She lives in a small village down the hill—within sight of the spot we stood with her on the Wall, but still a good hour and a half walk each way. She makes this walk daily carrying her goods in a large pack on her back. Her livelihood depends on selling a hat or two or a pack of postcards or a bottle of water, and it was a slow day for tourists, yet there was no hard-sell at all involved in our brief exchange. Her focus and concern was on Paula’s and my splinted hands (Paula broke her wrist in a car accident two weeks before I broke my hand), and that we be careful not to injure ourselves further. She was also delighted with the fact that I could communicate with her in Chinese. We stood there for a while, chatting, before a few students and I bought some water from her and Paula and I both bought hats to shield our faces from the hot sun. Before we parted, we posed together for a picture.

I almost didn’t post this picture, vainly thinking it was an unflattering one of me: my hair disheveled, my tired smile a bit askew in my shadowed face. Yet something about this photo captures the tenderness of that brief encounter: two women (roughly the same age?), registering one another’s fatigue, expressing a mutual quiet concern, enjoying the brief connection we had found together.

Destination: Tiananmen Square. The group was well prepared for this outing, having taken a preparatory course on 20th Century China with me prior to the trip (and having been very engaged with the material, which delighted me as their instructor). We had a lively discussion about the significance of Tiananmen as we circled up in the hotel lobby before walking a few long blocks to the Square itself. Little did I imagine (after our discussion of such weighty intellectual matters as the May Fourth Movement, the Cultural Revolution, Spring 1989 and Falungong) that the most memorable parts of this outing would be the wedding party we encountered en route to the Square, outside a lavish hotel (clearly hosted by a very wealthy and important family, the bride grandly emerged from a Rolls Royce). Well, that and chasing down and managing to enroll military guards for photos in the Square itself (I had no idea some of my Widener women students were this wild about men in uniform, or that these militarized security officers could turn to butter when confronted with friendly and fawning (and flirty?) students with cameras.)

Destination: Foot massage at Li Garden, 18 Jinyu Hutong (Goldfish Lane), Wangfujing. This was a recommendation from our hotel, when we asked for a reputable foot massage establishment in close proximity to our lodgings. The other faculty and I had the visited this venue the evening after our long walk at the Wall, and had been inspired to bring students back there after a long day of traversing Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. After introducing seven of my students to the basic principles of Chinese foot massage and the standard beliefs about its therapeutic value, the students and I had hour-long foot massages interspersed with lively conversations between the practitioners (who had been studying English with their manager—a graduate of Peking University) and the students. Many of the practitioners were from Henan Province, and the students had an opportunity to ask questions about the rural-to-urban migration experience. The practitioner who worked on me was a young woman who had migrated to the city, having left her one-year old son with her husband’s parents to be raised in the countryside. She and her husband both now live in the city and send money home to the family.

Despite these vast differences in background and privilege, the students found they shared a few things in common with these young people: a fascination with Lady Gaga (and the ability to sing her songs!), a respect for the Lakers, and a certain shyness about speaking in a foreign language that could be overcome with shared humor.

We’re laughing a lot, which is a wonderful thing to share with fellow travelers. And there is a certain clean edge that comes with humor: the ability to cut through one’s jet-lagged haze. I’m looking forward to hearing my students’ responses to this morning’s “Unchained Melody.”