A step at a time

August 9, 2011

August 8th, 2011

Sometimes the horrible things humans do to each other and the planet make me feel so hopeless. It seems like everything is just a mess and there is no solution. And then I stayed at Elephant Nature Park in Chiangmai, Thailand. The experience changed my mind set and made me realize that there is hope because there are so many people in the world who care.

Elephant Nature Park is a sanctuary for abused and neglected animals from all over South East Asia. The park is home to abused and neglected pigs, cows, a feisty pony, a three legged horse, over 50 cats, and over 90 dogs.  But the 37 elephants are the star of the show. Almost all of them at the park have suffered from abuse and neglect at the hands of humans in logging camps, trekking and tourist shows and also just horrible accidents.  Malai Tong is an older elephant with half of her back foot blown off by a landmine. Mae Do is an elephant that had her hips and legs broken by forced breading programs. She was chained down and a dozen mahoots (Elephant “caretakers”) were stabbing her with large knives so that she couldn’t move while the bull raped her from behind. To this day she and the other elephants that went through this excruciating process are terrified of male elephants and will run away if they see or smell a male.

All of the elephants steal hearts. But my favourites were Jokia and Mae Peng. Jokia is an elephant with a tragic past. She worked for a logging company that worked her day and night. When she was pregnant her owner forced her to work in the rain at the top of a hill. Suddenly Jokia went into labour and when the baby was born the slippery slope was a difficult terrain for it to hold onto and Jokia watched it roll down the hill to its death. As the days went by, Jokia plunged into a deep depression and one day refused to get up to work. Her owner stabbed her and stabbed her but she still refused to get up. So he threw stones into her eyes and blinded her.

When she was brought to the park, Jokia was still deeply depressed and park staff worried greatly about the elephant’s welfare. But Mae Perm (a senior elephant at the park), sensing that this elephant needed help, came up to her and realizing she was blind caressed her with her trunk. Mae Perm led Jokia about the park and showed her the ropes. Now years later, the two are inseparable. Anywhere that Mae Perm goes Jokia is not far behind.

The elephants at Elephant Nature Park have had tragic pasts and it is easy to see from their eyes that many of them are still haunted. But it is also beautiful to see that many like Jokia and Mae Do, are gentle around humans again. They have been so ill treated but they are learning to trust and love again.

The park owes it’s existence to the work and devotion of one very determined woman. Her name is Lek, the Thai word for small, and the word really suits her stature but not her heart. Meeting her, Dan and I both felt star-struck. She is so inspiring. She is a woman with passion and a purpose. In a world where so many feel lost, she wakes up every day knowing there is important work to be done to fight for animal welfare in Thailand.

Now, the park is thriving. The guests pour in and the cash register from the gift shop peels joyfully through the halls, all proceeds heading to support the elephants. Lek also has many projects planned throughout Thailand and a brand new park beginning in Cambodia. But she remembers that it wasn’t always like this.

As early as 2002, the park was renting the land from the government and struggling to support nine elephants. As a side project, Lek began documenting the brutal training rituals that elephants endure in order to work in trekking camps and shows for tourists. First the baby elephants are ripped from the protective care of their mothers and then they are forced into a cage too small to move in and poked and beaten with nail-tipped sticks. The practices are barbaric and seem more effective at teaching the elephants violence than suppressing it. But the ultimate goal is to make the elephants fearful and submissive.  After several months in this cage the mahouts have “broken” the elephant’s spirit and then, armed with large metal hooks for beating the elephants, they begin to attempt riding the once gentle creatures.

Lek sometimes brought volunteers on her expeditions to document these training practices. And one time, without Lek’s knowledge, one of the volunteers was so horrified by what she saw that she sent pictures to PETA. The organization spread the word immediately calling for a ban to tourism in Thailand until the government change the conditions for the elephants.

Thailand is a country economically dependent on tourism. And instead of seeing this as an opportunity to change, the government and many locals sought to blame, accuse and spread rumours about Lek, who was in no way responsible.

Lek started receiving threats of all kinds, and was even called into trial. She went into hiding in her family village, but then when threats were made to her family, her father denied her publicly calling her “a black sheep” and saying that from a young age she had always been different. As Lek recalled these stories to us, there was no anger in her voice. She seemed to understand their plight and even added that her family runs a elephant trekking company so it is not surprising that they wouldn’t want to side with her. She said she hasn’t had contact with them for years and has been denied by them and accused of being crazy.

She amazed me. She seemed like she was beyond petty anger. Being denied by my family would devastate me and I am not sure I could ever get over it. But Lek had a greater dream and couldn’t be stopped.

I was later told by Pomm (her only employee at that time) that the locals and government leaders knew that Lek was someone who would never give up. And so they sought to hurt her in the only way they could. While Lek was in hiding, she heard that one of her baby elephants had been poisoned. She rushed back to the sanctuary only to see it bleeding from its eyes and rubbing it’s face in pain against a pole. The baby died with Lek by its side. To this day they still do not know how the cyanide ended up in the elephant’s drinking water.

Elephant rides and elephant made paintings are major industries in Thailand. Tourists everywhere are drawn to these animals and want to have a real connection with them. But few people know what these kinds of connections have cost the elephants. Now word is beginning to get out. But it’s amazing how many people still want to keep the voices speaking for elephants silenced.

Eventually tensions cooled. A rich business man heard about Lek’s battle from a friend at PETA and offered to buy the land for Lek to secure the future of her sanctuary. And as the sanctuary gained in popularity, with more money and volunteers, Lek ensured that there would be less resentment from the local community. She hired locals to work at the park, organized the volunteers to go to the local school to teach English to the school children, and even built a space for local women at the sanctuary to offer Thai massages to the tourists and keep all the profits for themselves. Lek invited the local medicine man to perform the opening ceremony for the volunteers at the park and ensures that the locals are involved in all aspects of the park. She is determined to change the villagers’ minds and wants them to see the park as an essential part of their community.

However, still in Thailand speaking up for animal rights is a dangerous business. So many people are profiting off of animals that anyone who speaks up for them will be persecuted. It is an uphill battle. But the Elephant Nature Park is a place that gave me hope that the tides are turning not only because of Lek, but because of the large number of people of various ages that volunteer every week (an average of fifty a week) and are really invested in seeing a better future for animals. Dan and I were especially struck by some of the older volunteers. There was a man named Michael a 70 year old, self-proclaimed “professional volunteer.” He was remarkably youthful, always cheery and quite skilled at shoveling elephant pooh. There was also a retired teacher volunteering a year at the park to teach the mahouts, and some of the staff English.

Dan and I were also amazed by the trainers at the park. They were a middle aged couple who had given up the “normal life” and spent the last decade working with the animals. Their brain child is an experimental positive reinforcement training program for the elephants. They use bananas to train the elephants to perform basic commands that will help with their upkeep and general husbandry. The most interesting part of the training is that it is completely voluntary. The mahouts are required to bring their elephants by for one short training session per day; however the elephants can decide at any time if they no longer want to participate. In fact, the trainers told me that the trick is getting the elephants to leave. Some elephants will come by four or five times a day. Dani, their star student, is said to be hard to keep away. Every time I came near the trainers I saw her standing in the field close by waiting for her turn to begin again.

At every turn, there were people to admire and respect and visible positive changes that brought a tear to the eye. It made me realize that people do care. The enemy is ignorance. If more people knew about the terrible practices involved in the tourism industry in Thailand, the industry would be forced to change. And I now believe that it will.



Bicycle theft

July 16, 2011


May 28th, 2011

It took me over a year to build up the courage to buy a bike. Riding a bike in China is a spiritual practice. It requires upmost attention and you really have to let go of your sense of control. Traffic is insane. Motorcycles drive in the opposite direction down the street, buses blast in and out of the bike lanes and vendors, pedestrians, strollers, car doors opening, all provide shocks that come out of nowhere. When you ride a bike in China you have to abandon your sense of power and just flow with the intricate choreography of the traffic. You are just one of the multitudes in the background and nothing is personal.

But I really wanted a bicycle because for me it is so tied to nostalgia. My dad and I used to go on bike trips together on a pair of pink bicycles we lovingly called our “freedom machines.”

Living in China has really made me appreciate my father so much more. I brag about him constantly to my class. Mainstream Chinese culture is extremely money focused. And though it is easy to judge, I have to realize that in a country with no social safety network and a large aversion to risk, money is THE status symbol. It is a big status symbol in the west as well, but way more so here in China. People love to buy designer labels; and appearing to be wealthy is very important to 面子, “face”.

I yearn for a time and a place where people cared about something more than just money. And since many Chinese look up to the West for their opulence, I love to tell them stories of the main man in my life, who never strove for wealth and in fact never seemed to value it at all – my father.

My dad would ride one of the set of pink bicycles to work every morning, when the weather was nice. He got the twin bicycles in a yard sale for twenty bucks and was always exceedingly proud of his purchase. I tell my students about the wisdom of my father. Why drive a car, you will have to pay for gas and gym fees, when you can get all of that and more in a bicycle. If everyone were like my father, climate change wouldn’t be a problem; but then again, maybe we would have to worry about technological stagnation. Either way, my dad is one of a kind.

So bicycles for me are always inextricably linked to memories on those bike rides with my father and the wisdom he gave me. Wisdom my friends now attribute to me. They say I am the least materially driven person they know and I tell them “you’ve never met my father not to mention my grandmother.”

Whenever I buy something the least bit expensive I always keep a tally of the number of times I have used it in order to determine whether or not I got my money’s worth and if I used it enough to justify the cost.  The majority of my wardrobe is pieces that various friends gave to me because they no longer liked them or because they moved away. So a lot of my clothes are ill fitting or not really suitable. One day, my friend Shanshan, who always tells it as it is, told me she didn’t like a sweater I was wearing. I told her frankly, “me neither, it’s ugly, I’ve never liked it.” She looked at me confused and said, “it makes you look like a grandma, why do you wear it?” And I replied, “Because I have it.” The sweater, like much of the stuff I own, was left behind when one of my friends left the country, and even though I’ve always hated it, I’ve worn it because I didn’t want to buy another sweater. Why buy a sweater when you already have one?

But I will drop money without hesitation to go traveling or eat at a restaurant. It’s just things that I’ve never seen as worthwhile.

So when I bought a bicycle in China, it was a complicated decision. On the one hand, buying a bike would help the environment, because sometimes when I didn’t want to take the bus, I would take taxis or motorcycle taxis to work and that produced waste. But on the other hand, I don’t like things. And even though the particular bike I was going to buy was second hand and cost about 30$, I was determined to keep a careful tally of the number of times I used it to be sure I got my money’s worth.

(I wonder what normal people are thinking about as I keep these tallies in my mind.)

And today, I thought about that when I woke up. I had used my bicycle ten times, making it 15 Yuan per use. I had to use it more and bring down the cost. And so, even though the weather looked a bit like rain and the front tire needed a bit of air, I rode it to work. And then, after class with my favourite student, where we discussed Marxism and the class struggle, I went outside, and it was gone.

A bunch of emotions went through my mind. At first it was confusion, I wondered where my bike had gone. Then after I told the nearby maxis, (a group of middle ages men with tanned skin and pot bellies, that stand on the corner of the street and try to sell rides on their motorcycle taxies, maxis) a large group started discussing the bike. What colour was it? Where had I left it? Had I locked it? Had anyone seen anything? And suddenly the feeling changed. I was touched that all these strangers cared so deeply about finding out who had taken my bike. They all felt a part of the injustice and it was really sweet. But, there was still a part of me that felt mad, I was an obvious victim, poor me. And then as I rode the bus home, I told the lady on the bus beside me the story, another feeling came to my mind. Relief. Now I no longer had to keep a tally on the bike. In China, that bike would be sold and resold dozens of times and I’d never have to worry that it wasn’t used enough. Also I wouldn’t have to ride home on a flat tire worrying about the traffic. With just one month left, the tally on that bike was looming over my head. I somehow had to bring it’s price down to 4 yuan a ride (the price of the bus.)

Improv is a spiritual practice

July 16, 2011

May 4th, 2011


Yesterday my friends and I went to a quiet pub down the street to hang out. My friend group in Wuhan has retracted and solidified and so I almost always hang out with the same people. The group of us Josh, Marlene and Shanshan, were playing a game. Each of us would have one turn to ask the group a question and then everyone would take turns answering. My question was about your earliest childhood memory. I’d read that this is a question therapists ask to try and see their patients world view, childhood is often where that view is formed and this memory can help a therapist try to see the lens that the patient is using to filter the world.

My memory was not of my parents, (sorry mom and dad), nor my brothers (sorry guys) but my friend Ashley. She was my neighbour when I was four years old. And I remember sitting in her room looking through her dolls trying to find one to take home. The day before, I had given Ashley a very expensive doll that my grandmother had given me for Christmas. It was Ashley’s birthday and so I needed to give her a present. My mom was I think a bit surprised that I had chosen that gift, I did it without her knowing, and she thought I might regret it. So she asked Ashley’s mom if I could have it back, but I didn’t want it back. So instead, I was allowed to choose one of Ashley’s dolls to take home. I remember fingering the doll I had chosen’s face and playing with her woollen hair. She was an Asian style doll with mock silk clothing and straight black horizontal stitches as eyes. I loved her. But I also remember being angry with Ashley. I had asked her if she loved my present the best and she said that she loved all her presents the same. I had given her an expensive doll but the girl down the street had only given her a few drawings. I felt gypped and jealous and only then did I regret the gift.

The next question was “what is your proudest moment”. My friend Marlene didn’t hesitate. It was the moment when she found out that her scientific paper had been published and she was sent to San Francisco to present her findings. Josh took a bit longer but finally said it was when he had been made editor for his school’s newspaper. Then it was Shanshan’s turn.

Shanshan works as an editor for a in-flight magazine in Shanghai. She’s young and fashionable, lives downtown and has free thinking parents that support her in her decisions. As a Chinese girl, she’s made it; she’s one of the lucky ones. But you’d be hard pressed to get her to see it that way. Shanshan hates China. She hates it with a passion. In fact, she often refers to the country as “all of this shit.” She thinks of herself as Western and takes pride in telling stories of the people who confused her for a foreigner.

Shanshan confessed her proudest moment was her graduation from university in the UK where she was the only Chinese person studying her major. She had made it, but since then she said she’s struggled to find that feeling again.

Then it was my turn and though I had the most time to think about it, nothing came to mind. Why was it that when I was trying to think about my successes, all I could think of were the failures that accompanied them? Let me see, was it when I had gotten a lead role in a play at university, no because I messed up my lines and broke character. Was it being selected for French for the Future? No, because I had made so many mistakes in French and never really belonged in Quebec and then of course there was that terrible fiasco with my French teacher in university.

I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything; I hadn’t done anything really great or even that good and if I had well it wasn’t enough. I stumbled and said I couldn’t think of anything and that it was much easier to see in all the ways I had failed. And then, I saw my friends start to take back what they had said. They said that maybe they weren’t exactly proud and that it wasn’t that great an achievement. And that made me feel even worse. Not only could I not think of a very proud moment in my own life, but my doubt rubbed off on my friends and made them doubt themselves too.

It’s only now that I see the connection between my childhood memory and my lack of a proudest moment. Many of the things I have done in my life have been a means to an end and that end is acknowledgement by others. And those are the things I connect most closely to the failures in my life. You can never get enough acknowledgement. There’s always a critic. And more than that, most people are so busy hoping you acknowledge them to worry about acknowledging you. And the rare times you do get acknowledged something in your brain stops that feeling from truly sinking in. We are taught to be modest and not believe the best about ourselves.  But I like Eckhart Tolle’s theory. The ego is a powerful force and my ego says I am a failure. It’s a great story and she’s sticking to it.

Ironically, (because it is a usually thought as a performance art) improv is one of the few things I did out of true love with no desire to be acknowledged for it at all. In fact, in university, my favourite part of improv was the practices and I seldom participated in the competitions or shows. Improv was always about love of the art for me and the audience just got in the way. But I safeguarded that love, and protected it from being destroyed by not pursuing a career in improv (though it isn’t as if opportunities exactly abound) and somehow keeping it something I did for myself, when I wanted, and having nothing to do with others.

Improv allows me to be present. The ego is silenced and it’s all about living in that moment. The greatest improvisers work with their environment and off their co-improvisers flawlessly; they are truly alive. You don’t live off a script, you can’t plan ahead. You don’t know what’s coming. And that feeling is thrilling.

If only I could do that in life. Why can’t I see life as improvisation? That’s what it is after all. It’s one big long-form sketch. But instead I am tuned out, living in the past, thinking about sketches that didn’t go as planned (as if improv were meant to follow a plan), and not connecting with what is here in the now. Forgetting the beauty and passion of the moment!

A wall away, A world away

April 11, 2011

March 11th, 2011

I heard my neighbours again last night. The walls in my building are thin and I could hear the loud rustling and bangs from the other room. I can’t make out what they’re saying and Xu says they are not from Wuhan because they aren’t speaking the local dialect. The shouting gives me shivers and Xu translates the woman’s pleas. She’s begging him to stop. I close my eyes and burry my head into his chest. It’s so terrible and I don’t know what to do.

I feel so powerless here. I strongly believe that we should help each other; we need to reach out to those in need and make them know they aren’t alone. But living in China makes me feel like a naïve child; somehow it just doesn’t seem to work that way here.

“We need to call the police!” I tell Xu and he looks at me baffled and then I realize how silly I sound. I remember a time when I saw a full on street brawl and no one called the police. People don’t call the police here; it seems that would just bring more trouble.

“Well what ARE we going to do? Isn’t there somewhere she can go?” I ask and he just hugs me tighter. “This isn’t Canada, Bonnie,” he says.

I couldn’t sleep that night. I tossed and turned in bed thinking about my neighbours so close but so far away.

A couple sleepless nights later, over tea I asked my friend Anna her thoughts. Anna had previously very candidly told me about growing up in a family with domestic violence. Ten years ago, she came home from primary school one day to their quiet two-bedroom flat and there in her kitchen she saw her father in a rage holding a knife up to her mother’s throat. After that the next afternoon, without her mother knowing, she asked her father to leave. And the next morning he was gone. They never saw him again.

Blowing on my tea I told her what I’d heard and asked her what I should do. “You’d better do nothing. It’s not like the West you know. I heard in the West you have shelters and resources to help women like her. But here there’s nowhere she can go except maybe her original parents, but there’s just too much shame in that. If you said anything it would just be terrible for her. The worst part of all is the gossiping of the neighbours. I remember how I hated seeing the pity in their eyes and the fact that they are just so pleased with themselves for having a better life.”

Anna is a woman who amazes me with her strength. She now supports herself and her mother through her wages as a nurse. She works long hours and saves every penny just to see her mom smile. She tells me how her only wish is that she can save enough money to give her mother a better life. “I don’t want her to regret having me. I know that she must.” It scares me how deeply Anna truly believes her mother regrets having her. She’s sure of it and I can’t even imagine how that must feel.

But there’s such a strength and beauty to Anna. I often wish I could write down every word she says and turn it into a book; her story blows me away. Anna says “三十年河东,三十年河西,” (30 years on the east side of the river, 30 years on the west side of the river) which means you can never tell what the future will bring and that anything is possible. I only hope that is true for my neighbour; though I highly doubt she can wait 30 years.

Stereotypical Love

February 12, 2011

February 12th, 2011

Valentine’s day is in two days and this year I have to buy a present for my new boyfriend. That’s right I have a boyfriend! And it gets stranger; my boyfriend is a Chinese guy. Those of you who know me well know I vowed I would never date a Chinese boy. But my reasons are mostly because I felt like I could never act like the girls on Chinese tv (super thin and super super cute) and if I started dating a Chinese boy I thought I would feel pressured to fall in line. But also because most Chinese boys seem to be completely disinterested in foreign woman and my reaction is to reject before I get rejected.

The funny thing about Xu (my boyfriend’s family name) is that in behaviour he is completely Chinese (he obeys no traffic rules when he drives, he smokes, litters, spits, drinks baijiu and plays majung till early hours of the morning) but then the way he thinks is very Western. He is very open-minded and has little of that judgemental and traditional side I have seen in so many of my students. And now he has a foreign girlfriend. Ha!

You may wonder how we communicate. Because I mentioned that his English is not good. Well first off I like to teach him simple phrases in English, like now he knows “Have a good night!” and “I miss you.” But mostly we speak in Chinese to one another. He speaks slowly and simply to me and that’s all that’s needed. In fact that was one of the things that drew me to him at the very beginning, his incredible patience with me; he speaks slowly and clearly without a hint of condescension. In fact, he has a lot more patience with me than I have with myself. He will explain a concept several times over and over, way past the point where I have given up on myself.

Violet (ZhangYi) and I suddenly have a lot more in common. She dated a Canadian boy before and would complain about some of the cultural differences. But surprisingly, she and I face completely different stereotypes. Violet tells me that sometimes when she was out with her boyfriends, local people would swear at her and accuse her of being a gold-digger and a slut. She said that this made her not want to go out in public with her boyfriend anymore. Many Chinese people view Chinese girls with foreign boys very harshly. They think the girls are looking for a passport and a way out of China. Chinese view Western culture as being loose and fast and many people don’t like to think of their women being wrapped up in that.

For me and Xu on the other hand the stereotypes are not as harsh, though China is still a judgemental place so no one escapes without someone laughing at them. Xu is slightly shorter than me, not noticeable to me, but he thinks people laugh at us. But as far as he being a Chinese and me being a Westerner the stereotypes are not as cruel. When we are out together, I have heard people ask him if he has a lot of money. They are sure he must be some sort of high-roller. On my end well, the foreigner always escapes without much judgement. The foreigner’s very identity means that they can’t be held by the same standards as the locals.

I find it interesting that Xu was more than excited to meet any and all of my foreign friends regardless of whether or not he would be able to speak to them. But when he met Violet for the first time he got really nervous. He explained to me that Chinese girls are different and that I don’t understand. “They are very traditional; they will have lots of questions for me.” And Xu was right, not about Violet, but about most Chinese people. When I tell them I am dating a Chinese guy they start asking all kinds of questions. “How old is he? What do his parents do? What kind of job does he have? What kind of car does he drive? Where does he live?” The questions are all revolved around a central theme “How much money does he have?”

But foreigners, the questions are concealed in a sly smile that after a few drinks finally gets formulated into words and they all revolve around a central theme, as our reputation would have,  – the bedroom.

Recently, I met Mike, a Canadian-born Chinese who told me how good it was to see Xu and I together. He had questions of his own; pulling me aside he asked “let me guess you were one of those girls who said they would never date a Chinese guy right?” I laughed and admitted that  he was right. “It’s not easy growing up Chinese in Canada,” he admitted. “It’s a terrible stereotype over your shoulders especially as a man. We’re shown as being feminine nerdy losers.” I looked at him and tried to deny it, “That’s ridiculous…” But I realized that he was right and I didn’t really know what to say.

I had just finished reading Obama’s memoir about growing up black in America. It was very insightful and that paired with watching “The Wire” and living as a minority in China have made me think more deeply about the crippling power of racial stereotypes. Stereotypes aren’t truth, but they are there, they exist and somehow we have to live in spite of them. Let them laugh, I am not getting are shorter and he’s not getting any whiter.

Pre-Bday Feminist Rant

February 12, 2011

January 12th, 2011

I realize now I never wrote a blog entry about my trip to Korea. There are a few reasons for that, none of them being that the trip was not interesting. The first reason is that the trip, though eventful, was more about visiting old friends and escaping China than it was about experiencing Korea. But I did see some excellent features of Seoul, lots of cute boys J (the American Army base is helpful in this area), good shopping and lots of Western restaurants. But the best part of Korea was seeing my friend Candace and her husband Jon. I was great to see them settled half-way across the world. I was impressed with their knowledge of the city and their languages skills. Coming to Korea was a new revelation to me as well of how far I had come in Chinese. Now I have basic conversation skills in Chinese and being back in an environment where I couldn’t speak to the local was frustrating.  

Tomorrow is my birthday. I am throwing myself a party and inviting everyone I have met over the last year. It is also my one year anniversary of living in China. And as such it is a time of reflection for me and a time to look back and see what I have accomplished.

The obvious accomplishment has been an improvement in my Chinese which has brought with it a general confidence with being here. After traveling around China by myself using my Chinese to get through some of the discomforts and tough situations, I know that I have the building blocks in place. But this next half a year, I really want to understand this country more. Making more Chinese friends will be my next priority so that I can use more Chinese outside of the classroom.

Right now I have a few friends that I speak with only in Chinese. One is my friend Sammy, who was my Chinese teacher last semester.

And this birthday I feel mostly blessed to have this life. I am so lucky and the large part of that feeling is routed in the fact that I was not born Chinese.  

Being a woman in China would not be easy. Sometimes I find myself getting angry with Chinese girls, for being so submissive and trying so hard to please others. But living here a little longer I have begun to see the enormous pressures they live with.

“Chinese women are more likely to commit suicide than Chinese men. More than half of the world’s female suicides happen in China, where the female suicide rate is nearly five times the world average. China is the only country on Earth where more women commit suicide than men.” Peter Hessler

 I often ask my student whether they think it is harder to be a woman or to be a man in China. They almost always point to the enormous pressures on men to make a good income and claim that it is harder to be a man.

I remember one class of girls I had where I asked them if they believed there was sexism in China and they flatly replied no. I rephrased the questions, does society like powerful women. Do men like successful women? They replied with a no.

Sometimes this fact feels hopeless. I have felt the pressures of identity in my own life. I’ve seen the kind of women that men have felt attracted to and felt hopeless. But my own reaction has always been to reject men before they reject me and preserve the freer sides of myself. But I know that I am an intimidating woman. I know what it’s like to be hitting it off with a guy at the beginning when I am just smiling and laughing at his jokes, but the moment it comes to talking about my own accomplishments seeing him shrink in self doubt.

Living in China has made me realize how far the feminine revolution has brought women.

The way women are portrayed on television in China fills me with rage. They are always pitiful and pathetic; you can’t watch a show without the females falling into hysterical tears within five minutes. One very popular show on television at first glance seems like the story of a Chinese Mary Tyler Moore. Except of course, the Chinese counterpart always has a trembling lip and a pitiful look in the eye. And my friend Shanshan jokes it’s the story of how to sleep your way to the top because the heroine has a love affair with her boss in the show.

Chairman Mao said that women hold up half the sky and as such they are equal. This is one area in which I think you can’t blame the communist party. In the countryside people are still drowning girl babies or selling them to criminals. These problems are more deeply rooted.  

However that being said, it’s not a one way road. I have never seen the blatant sexualisation of women on Chinese television that is so obvious in Western media. I guess we have to live in our pressures. But better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Hohhot (Inner Mongolia)

November 27, 2010

Sept 17th – 19th

The final leg of our journey together, Dan and I went to Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. We went on a tour to see the grasslands and slept in a yurt (as they are called in Turkey) or a gir (as they are called in China) or a gurt (a combination of the previous two words and as it is called by no one but me). On the grasslands tour, we saw sheep, camels, bulls jostling each other in the sun and horses running about freely (there wasn’t a single fence anywhere). At night we sang songs and learned traditional Mongolia games played with sheep’s elbows (pretty disgusting). Dan tamed the sheep herder’s “ferocious” dog, which I think he was immensely proud of because he kept telling us that only he was able to touch it and that it would be dangerous for anyone else to approach it. The next morning we went horse riding (which even though it is non vegan is pretty fun just the same.) We tried to master it like the Mongolians but we just ended up with a bruised ass. Dan’s horse we named Obama because of its colour and its willingness to lead, while mine we called Fabio, who at first we named Lady Gaga but then because we thought it was a boy the name had to be changed (but I guess there is some debate about her gender as well.)

But my favourite thing about Inner Mongolia was the friendliness of the people. One morning, on the day before our grassland tour, Dan and I walked around the city to get a feel for the place. We went to a park and in one park we saw senior citizens doing taichi, singing in a choir and playing music, playing with strange yo-yo like toys and some even dancing around. It was amazing how kind people were too. When we walked up to the yo-yo guys they showed us how to use them and the toys make a strange whizzing sound when you whip them around. When we joined the dancers on the other side of the park, they started to dance with us enthusiastically and show us some Mongolian dance moves. In Wuhan, if a foreigner started to dance, people would get shy and you would quickly become the spectacle. But in Mongolia the people danced with us and everyone was laughing with us and not at us. It was a great feeling.

But perhaps most surprisingly in that same park we asked a woman to take a photo of us and she invited us back to her house with her to meet her daughter and have lunch. When we got to her house, we discovered that her neighbour’s son was getting married and she invited us to go watch the procession. We went outside and saw the groom carrying the bride in a wheelbarrow. Everyone was laughing uproariously because he was wearing ladies underwear outside his suit, they were nice too, red and silky. We thought it was going to end there but then somehow we were ushered inside the house where we got to see more of the behind the scenes action. I watched the couple share a bowl of noodles and the photographer nearly took as many photos of me as he did the bride, while Dan kept getting candy shoved at him from the family members.

When we went back to our hosts’ house, the lady of the house, who I just called Ayi or auntie, had lunch ready. She was startled to find we didn’t eat meat but did her best. She even offered us baijiu, which I refused (I hate the stuff.) But Dan and she then began what seemed like a drinking contest with her continually egging Dan on to drink more and her ending up bright eyed and red faced. It was pretty hilarious.

So that was Mongolia, surprises at every turn but each one fully enjoyable.


November 27, 2010

Beijing (Sept 11-16th)

There’s a loud screaming baby at the table beside me in a busy café in Hankou. I’m waiting for my next class to start. The new semester is in full swing. I have started my second semester of Chinese classes with no noticeable improvement from last semester. I think part of the problem is improvements come so gradually and with such great effort that they slip by unnoticed with nothing in sight but the next hurdle. But I’m now pleasingly busy. I have Chinese class in the morning, English classes to teach in the evenings and weekends, and homework to fill the void.

I have also recently begun a new phase of self examining, which really was initiated when Dan and I went to Beijing. We took a flight from Wuhan on September 11th, without either of us noticing the date. We tried to find a couch surfing host, but ended up with no success. Couch surfing is just beginning in China. In Wuhan I have had three couch surfers stay at my place in one year (three German girls and a couple from France). The community here is also really small. So I looked forward to going to Beijing to attend a big couch surfing party. The occasion one guy was celebrating rather ironically his divorce with a big party. Some people thought it was crass, but for me it made total sense. After breaking up with my first boyfriend I expressed my grief in the same way, so for me I understood.

The party had a dress code, but neither Dan nor I remembered to follow it. I wore a great dress that I bought in the art district that day, and Dan wore a ridiculous bird mask that we “borrowed” from the hostel. (But since it was lost at the party, and we didn’t exactly ask for permission to use it, I guess we can’t really legitimately call it borrowing.) The party was great fun! Dan and I danced around ninja style, drank too much and met surfers from all over the city. And I got to remember what it was like for a second to talk to men I actually found attractive.

Living in Wuhan there is a real lack of viable boyfriend options. Many of the foreigners are very strange to begin with – I mean what kind of a person chooses to live in a city like Wuhan. You can’t blame the Chinese, many of them were born there, but the foreigners are suspicious. Then those that are tolerable aren’t interested because they came to China to get away from western women, so why would they want to talk to us here (or that’s at least how I feel). Mom suggests that I date a Chinese boy and I am not against the idea, but they seem to be lol. 😀 So with a lack of better options, I have used my time to focus on myself and what I want to do. I have read Eckhart Tolle and started to try and meditate. (One night Dan and I went with a group camping on the Great Wall. This is when I got to try out my meditation skills in a place that truly felt holy, and it was great! I could really feel Gaia up there 🙂 And I have even started writing a novel, hence why the blog has been on the back burner for a while. But all this to say, Beijing was a nice break from the solitude.

Though now that I have written this I think, in Beijing we met our share of characters as well. At the party I met a guy who I thought was great. We started discussing meditation and were really hitting it off. But then he took that conversation thread and went on a long and painfully awkward rant about tantric massage, yuck! Poor men, sometimes their pick-up attempts are just a little too obvious.

Dan and I also had the pleasure to meet Stefano. Stefano is a very meticulous Italian man that was staying in the same hostel as us. Dan and I would laugh that all conversations with Stefano revolved around two main bases. The first was his essential oils his favourite being eucalyptus, but he also liked to talk at us at great lengths about aloe and tiger balm. He would explain in a thick Italian accent “you take the oil and put it on the skin and it’s good.” Whenever there was a lull in conversation Dan or I would just have to say this sentence to get the other one laughing, oh Stefano. He also delighted in talking about his thumb. Usually this would revolve back to the essential oil conversations because he would detail how he is treating the injury. Stefano hurt his thumb while opening a beer bottle. The story goes that Dan and Stefano wanted to save money, so when they went out, they brought beer with them and hid them just outside the bar. Every time they wanted to get a drink they just went outside, rustled around the bushes and took out one of their beers. They didn’t have an opener; so after several beers, the careful task of lightly tapping the caps against the raised sidewalk to separate it from the glass became more and more difficult. Stefano grew impatient and slammed his fist against the cement smashing the bottle and slicing his thumb. This is how the hurt thumb became the next favourite topic of conversation. Stefano would detail to us his bandaging routine, whether or not he needed to rest his thumb more, and of course the essential oils how and when they should be applied to the thumb.

Dan also learned his numbers. We rented bicycles and biked around the tourist district of Wuhan, with Dan drilling the numbers into his head by yelling them as we biked along. (Yi, er, san, si, wu, liu, qi, ba, jiu, shi.) After that we bargained for presents for people and that gave Dan a chance to test his new found knowledge.

So that was Beijing, some things like the Forbidden City were BORING are really not cool but much of the city and the time we spent there was just great; the Great Wall (the name doesn’t let you down), meeting locals, and laughing a lot with Dan.

Wuhan (September 8th-11th)

October 6, 2010

Next my brother and I headed to Wuhan so that he could see the city that for the last ten months has been my home. Ten minutes into the twelve hour bus ride, the bus broke down. We waited outside in the stifling heat, playing cards while we watched the driver tinker with the bus. It was the first time I had taken a sleeper bus (a bus with tiny bobsled-like beds so that the passengers can sleep.) Even after getting it started again, it was less than comfortable and we were woken in the middle of the night by a rough shake and a booming voice saying, “Wuhan”.

The next couple of days, Dan got to see the full Wuhan experience.

1)      We went out with my friends, Dan and Chen jammed together on the guitar. Dan kept asking me if Chen was gay because he kept touching his leg. In China, the men don’t have the same qualms with touching each others’ legs that men in the west do. That was something Dan had trouble getting used to. Chen on the other hand, finds the squeamishness of western men hilarious and gets a real kick out of teasing them.   

2)      We got stuck for two hours in traffic because all of the traffic lights in my district went out and I felt like I was going to be sick from the exhaust spilling into the windows of the crowded bus. Dan decides he much prefers to ride Josh’s scooter and skirt through traffic.

3)      We experienced local culture. Nowhere else on our trip had people stared at us as much as in Wuhan. And on one occasion when I asked a couple of university girls for directions in Chinese I heard them exclaim “wow!!!!” to each other when we parted ways. And of course no trip to Wuhan would be complete without seeing some dirty old man masturbate in public (now something I have seen quite a few times). Dan and I saw him using his briefcase as a shield while he had his way with himself by the bus stop.

4)      And we spent relaxing time together getting veggie burgers at Helen’s and watching pirated dvds in my apartment. Good times 🙂

Huangshan – Tunxi (Sept 3-7th)

October 5, 2010

My brother and I then decided to head out to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) to hike the famous peaks. In order to get there we took a twelve hour overnight train from Suzhou. Unfortunately our beds were right beside a room that seemed to serve mainly as the spitting room. All through the night, we’d be awoken from sleep by the sound of loud horking. What’s with Chinese people and the constant spitting? This is a puzzle we tried to solve several times during the trip. Is it because of the smoking? Is it poor appetite? Either way, we did not get a good night sleep that night and arrived at the base camp town of Tunxi in a grumpy mood.  

We spent the first day touring a small medieval village a couple of hours away called Xidi with an American from the hostel named Michael. Michael cannot speak a word of Chinese and he was traveling by himself; I think that is really bold. China is not really an easy place to travel without Chinese. Other tourists I have met told me it is the most difficult place in Asia they have travelled. According to them, other countries are much more approachable not only because the English is much better. (I have a theory it is because China does not need English, especially in tourist regions. It has so many of its own people, now newly rich, but constrained geographically (it is hard for Chinese to get visas) and so they profide enough of a market that tourist industries never really need to learn English to get by.) But also, China is just so massive it is hard to get an understanding for it or a real feeling of the country in a short time. My Estonian friend Kaisa says China is a country that grows on you. At first there are things that you just have to tolerate but after a while you learn to appreciate. Either way, people that come here without Chinese are going to flounder for a while.

So Michael joined Dan and I while touring Xidi. The village was crawling with art students painting the architecture and scenery. Every corner and alley had them sitting on stools painting landscapes. I asked them what they were doing here and they told me they were student from Harbin doing an art tour around Huangshan, painting some of the more beautiful towns and mountain ranges.

The most interesting part of Xidi was a small restaurant that we had to ask a local in order to find. She took us down some strange winding alleys and over bridges that looked no sturdier than pizza boxes. The restaurant had no physical menu. Instead when it was time to choose what we wanted they took us to the kitchen and showed us the cupboard full of food. We were expected to choose our dishes based on sight. There was even a dead skinned chicken laying in a bowl with the head still clearly attached. I told the cook in no uncertain terms that we wouldn’t be having the chicken thanks.

After Xidi, we planned to spend a day touring a small wilderness park we left michael on the foot of the mountain fully intending to meet up with him. Unfortunately however my phone died and we saw that was not a possibility. But strangely enough, a couple days later, when we went back to the hostel to get our things we found a note left in our bag from Michael, with his contact information and everything. Somehow he remembered which bags were ours and had the idea to leave us a note. It was a real surprise.

New friends joined up with us on our travels, two young Chinese guys from the China’s coast. Dan was pretty sure one of them had a thing for me because he was always blinking awkwardly. He seemed to have something in his eye, but only when he talked to me, so he was constantly squinting and blinking and it made me nervous to talk to him. Also at one point, we found a swimming pool and decided to take a swim. The pool had been out of use for quite a while; the bottom was murky and slimy. So we didn’t swim for long. And when I got out, he took a picture of me from behind in my bathing suit without me knowing. Dan caught him and told him off. And the whole thing left me with a strange feeling.

The best thing about the park was definitely the wild monkeys. Walking through the woods, Dan heard them chirping first and he hushed us quickly. The Chinese guys guffawed, there’s no way we heard monkey. But sure enough just a few moments later we saw them through the trees. Some other tourists caught up to us and started throwing candies at them.  One of the Chinese tourists, standing directly in front of a large bilingual sign NO FEED MONKEY, threw an apple at them. The monkey clutched the apple just like a person would and started taking bites out of it. The monkeys were really close to us and I felt partly touched, because they were so cute; and partly frightened because they periodically bared their teeth at us.

The Chinese guys told us later that we should not have stood so close to the monkey. Monkeys are vicious and have often attacked people they told us. So now, many people through rocks and sticks at the monkeys when they see them coming. I’ve seen the way Chinese people treat their pets, and so I have a feeling I know who started the war. The Chinese guys just looked at me half puzzled half pathetic; the same look I get every time I tell someone I am vegetarian.

The next day, we had planned to climb Huangshan with them. But unfortunately, I was struck with the worst food poisoning I have had in China. I threw up more than twenty times in three hours. (I blame a tomato and egg soup – because Dan was fine). Every time I moved I need to be sick. The guys told me foreigners have weak stomachs and that the Chinese stomach is strong. I told them, my body’s immune system is strong. Their bodies just keep the toxins inside, because the environment in China is so dirty there is no other choice, and that’s why they die so much younger than westerners.  I guess it was harsh but they caught me at a moment of weakness; and I resented their obvious feeling of superiority. So overall, I was glad to see them go. 

For a whole day, I laid in bed, trying to recover, reading and watching terrible Chinese television that I can’t understand. Dan tried to cheer me up by playing one of our childhood favourite games. We mute the sound on the television and invent the dialogue.

The following day, we climbed up Huangshan. The mountain range is the most famous in China and the subject of countless landscape paintings. The views were exquisite, easily the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. And to our great surprise, the path was a never ending staircase all the way up. There were little stands along the way where you could buy snacks and drinks. For two Canadians it was strange to wrap our heads around it.

However, I still found it quite challenging. I was feeling not quite recovered, like I might vomit at any moment; but Dan was playing his harmonica and chugging beers all the way up. We were quite the pair. When I felt tired Dan would play me a song to cheer me up. And feeling sorry for myself was made a bit harder by the fact that there were porters carrying incredibly heavy supplies and sometimes even people up the mountain. They were these wiry tanned men, all muscle, working one of the hardest jobs imaginable. Some of them were chanting songs in order to keep up their energy. It was really impressive. They did so much work for little over 6 CDN dollars a day. 

Finally, we made it to the top and the views lived up to all of our expectations. It was spectacular. Dan and I sat together silently watching the sunset. Both of us wrapped up in our private worlds. Dan writing down song lyrics, and me trying to be present and capture the stillness of the moment. The mist crept silently over the mountains and it felt like if we could just reach an inch further we would be able to touch the clouds.