A spinoff in proper "Rhoda" style of my patented e-mail blastograms, this blog was created with the intention of keeping friends and family updated on and amused by my life.

Monday, August 28, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part III

Every morning at around 7:30 an old man in a powder blue cardigan goes for a walk near my work. We usually cross paths somewhere near the front entrance to my office building.

I couldn't tell you how old he is (I've never been good at guessing people's ages), but everyday I see him I'm afraid it will be the last that I do. He walks with a four-footed cane for extra balance. His hunchback is larger than that of Quasimodo. When he stands "upright," his back forces him so far forward that it looks like he's bending over trying to touch his shoes.

This morning ritual is clearly not easy for him. He shuffles along at a snail's pace, leaning heavily on his cane as he trundles down the uneven sidewalk. When I pass him I can hear him breathing heavily, panting even. Sometimes he'll take a break on the steps of the neighboring building, sitting there trying to catch his breath as he watches the city wake up.

One block over, there is an apartment building run by Lutheran Family Services, and I assume that's where he lives. There aren't many other houses in the immediate vicinity.

But where is he headed and why?

The first time I saw him, I thought maybe he was on his way to an appointment. I imagined him in the same situation I had seen too many times when I was working with Volunteer Chore Services in Walla Walla--and older person abandoned by his family to live out the rest of his days in poverty fending for himself.

I wanted to help him get wherever he was going, but I was on foot myself, and didn't know how I could. A little guiltily, I continued on.

And in retrospect, I'm almost glad that I didn't offer to help that first day. Yes, there is a possibility that has some daily appointment, but as the days (and weeks) went by, I began to realize that the reason for his daily excursion was the excursion.

There's a certain spirituality to walking: it's liberating in that it shows us what we can achieve on our own, using are own two feet. It's also connecting, for it gives us the chance to interact closely with the world and those who share it.

And for this man, it's his daily demonstration that he is alive and able to participate. It's a show of strength and determination and a will to carry on, screw the world for making it so difficult.

It's his reason to get up in the morning, and being able to bear witness to it has become one of mine.

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

Latest New from China

Police crack down on striptease funerals...

And it didn't even appear in the People's Daily, I'm amazed. This is usually what passes for news with them.


American Anecdotes, Part II

The strap of my messenger bag broke two Thursdays ago. I was frustrated, but I wasn’t exactly surprised. Those of you who know me, know how much I like to carry around in my little bag, and how little time it takes for me to break it.

And in Kunming it didn’t matter—in fact, I had a routine. The cycle started when I would walk down to a tiny bag shop in a partly torn-down building on JianShe Lu.

They had knock-offs galore, but I kept with my favorite: a fake Diesel bag that had most of what I look for in a bag. Namely, it had a pouch in back to store my wallet (pickpockets have a difficult time getting to it that way), a side pocket for my cell (though it didn’t have a Velcro strap to hold it in place), was the perfect beige, and was just the right size to fit papers. What it didn’t have was extra stitching where the strap and the bag meet.

It being a Chinese-made, knock-off bag, I didn’t really have high expectations. I bought it for 60 kuai (about US$7.50) and would proudly carry it around with me for about a week until it started to disintegrate.

First, the lining would go. The back pocket that separated my wallet from the main compartment would quickly become one.

Then I would inevitably have one of my pens explode it the front of the sack, and I would have to try my best to wipe it out with a tissue.

The last stage was the strap breaking. But in China, even that could be fixed without much trouble. Once I was in Kashgar on the far western border of China. My Mandarin Chinese isn’t bad, but most natives there spoke the regional Uighur dialect. And yet, as I was walking downtown and I heard the rip of my strap come out of my bag, I knew I could figure something out—it was still China after all. And so I found a teenage boy who could speak a little Mandarin to take me to a shoe repairman with an old foot pedal sewing machine sitting in an alley. The teen translated and for 5 kuai (or maybe less, I don’t remember exactly), the man sewed the strap back through the heavy nylon and canvas of the bag, making a drunken zag back and forth in black thread to hold it in place.

Eventually though, I would have to give in. The strap would break again (or maybe two more times), and around two months after I bought the bag, I would start the cycle all over again.

But now I’m in the US, and when my strap finally broke I wasn’t sure what to do. It threw me off. I wasn’t against fixing it myself, I’m not completely inept, I just lacked the proper resources, such as a strong needle to penetrate the several layers necessary to reattach the strap.

Then one day, I was walking home, and I passed by a shoe repair shop by my work, and it reminded me of the old Uighur man in Kashgar that had fixed my bag before. “It’s worth a shot,” I said to myself, and so I took it in to Bill’s (or Steve’s, or John’s or something as American sounding as that) Shoe Repair.

An Asian woman stood behind the counter, flustered. The sign on the counter said “Make checks payable to _____ Nguyen (or something as Vietnamese sounding as that). I breathed out in relief, seeing that she was Asian. It made me relax a little, for she would understand my situation. She knew the low quality of goods coming out of China. She was someone who could relate to my situation, and I could relate to hers.

It was heading towards five thirty, so the first question I asked was if she was closing up shop.

She asked me what I needed and sighed. Of course it was something she could take care of, but it had been a long day.

“I had man come in today insistin’ dat I repair one of his shoes, and no English, so I couldn speak do him, and I couldn understand what he wan-ned, and once I finally undersood, I had to try to explain tings to him. And it took foreveh, an I’m exhausted. I’m old, you see. But I can hep you. I just gat’ eh new strong needew for my sewing machine, an’ I jus pewd id on. So dis bedder not break my needew. But I’w do it fo you. Normally I close by now, but just give me fifdeen minite. I can fix it. And I could fix da zippeh for you too, but that would take more time. You wan me fix da zippeh?” Her intonation rose sharply as she finished her tirade.

“No, just the strap. I’m gonna get a new bag soon. I just want to be able to walk home,” I replied.

“Ok, jus empy da bag and I fix it. No, problem. I jus’ need fifdeen mi-nite.”

I hate emptying my bag in front of other people. I feel naked without my bag to begin with, and horribly exposed with its contents on display. I pulled out my hand sanitizer, my Indian playing cards, my bus schedules, my decrepit MP3 player, the new MP3 player my mom was loaning to me, my insect repellent, my check stubs, my napkins from Hong Dou Yuan, my newly beat up copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a copy of the Arabic alphabet, my Astro Boy wallet, a USB pen, my Yunda danwei ID, my sunglass case. My life, quoi. I tried not to blush.

I handed over my bag and she disappeared into the back. I ruffled through my homeless belongings, carefully removing things to throw away.

Another customer came in to retrieve her shoes, and the Vietnamese woman came back out, maybe seven minutes after she had disappeared with my bag. She searched through the stacked boxes and found her shoes. Then she came over to me with the bag.

“All fixed,” she said with a smile.

And somehow we started talking.

“Ya know, dey jus ornament.”

I didn’t quite catch her meaning.

“Ornament. Chinese bags, dey just ornament,” she reiterated. “You can’t put anyting in dem. Dey just dere to look preddy. American bags, dose you can pud lods of tings in. But you put too much stuff in dat bag. No wonder id fall ‘part. You know, I’m from Asia, I know how dey make tings dere.”

“Oh, what country are you from?” It was the wrong question, but I didn’t know it at the time.

“Vietnam. But I been in da US fo twewve years.”

“Oh what part of Vietnam are you from?” I questioned, expecting her to say Saigon, but hoping she said the north so that I could talk about my trip to Hanoi.

“Actuly, I’m from Hanoi. I one da few pepew gid oud dere, you know,” she said proudly. “But it was hard. During da war I workd for da US in deir embassy. I was one of da first people on da list to be vacuated when everybody was leavin’. But dey lef’ me dere anyway. Dey jus lef widout any of us. We had to fend for ourselves, you know. I had to work for da government when da US lef’. Actully, dey sent my husband away to be brainwashed. You know how da Vietnamese government was, it like China. He died dere. Dey wan-ned me go too. Dey kep’ askin’, “how come you never go to da camp to be re-educated?” But dey never made me go. Me and my kids. I jus’ kep’ tryin’ to gid to America. Tought da govenment was gonna hep me. But dey didn. Id was my second husban. He heped me git to da US. Den he died…he got sick. Pepew ask me why I don’ remarry, but I tell dem id because I awready been married twice. Don’ need do it again. But he got me to da US.”

I was exhausted just listening to her, but I felt too guilty to interrupt, like it was somehow my fault MY government had left her behind to suffer. She kept unloading…

“You know, when I came to da US, I wrode a ledder to the National Library, tellin dem all bout what happened. You know what dey wrote back? Dey said dey didn’t have any records from da time because dey were all burnt, so dey couldn’ confirm my story. I tink dey thought I was asking fo deir hep or someting. But I wasn’t. You know, I jus’ wan-ned what happened to me to be remembered…to be recorded somewhere.”

She charged me twelve dollars for her seven minutes of work. It was more than the bag was worth, and I told her as much.

“Yeh, but dis ain’t China.”

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Monday, August 21, 2006

American Anecdotes, Part I

Last Tuesday some of my fellow Kunmingers and I got together in downtown San Francisco for a lovely dinner at Le Colonial. I had been working all day, and really wasn't thinking, for, although they had sent an e-mail reminding me of my reservation and hinting that it was "fine dining," I came home from work, took off my good clothes, and jumped into jeans and a (thank goodness!) a polo. Of course, I managed to forget my jacket (you can always tell the out-of-towners in San Francisco), which is only further proof that I was not thinking.

But I digress. It was a really nice time seeing Kristina and Jasper before they headed back China-side. And I caught Chesa just before her move back to Ohio to be the return fellow for Oberlin's Shansi Fellowship Program.

Service was spotty, but somehow the waiters knew when we were talking about something inappropriate, as they would inevitably come by just as something "rude" was coming out of my mouth. But beyond that conversation, we talked a little bit about our respective "American moments" that we'd had since our return from China.

Chesa's was one of my favorite:

Within several days of her return home, her friends decided to take her over to Las Vegas for a good time. Now, travelling with Chesa I can attest to the types of hotels we have gotten used to--we were often lucky if they had the bare necessities (ie- hot water). And when you travel in place like that, you develop a certain mindset. Of course, Las Vegas is not Luang Prabang (Laos), and she was staying in the Bellagio, not some shack with a disgusting carpet that had never been vacuumed because they don't have vacuums in Lao. And so, the hotel provided little accouterments such as shampoo, hand soap, etc.

The first day, she gaily opened the hand soap, excited that she didn't have to carry her own little bar around with her like she had, for example, through our entire trip in India. She placed it lovingly by the sink, enjoying its fresh scent and ivory hue. And she was content.

Until the next day, when the maid viciously removed the soap and replaced it with a new, unopened bar. Chesa was distraught. "How could they be so wasteful?!" she inquired of her American friends. "It's not like the soap was almost gone or anything. We had only used it once or twice!"

Her friends tried desperately to clam her, eventually distracting her with a dirty martini and a lounge by the pool.

But Chesa did not forget. The next morning, before leaving for the day, she took her new bar of soap, and wrapped it lovingly in a tissue (also provided). She then scoured the bathroom for a hiding place, eventually caching her little treasure just inside the tissue box, where it would be safe from the clutches of the wasteful maid, yet easily retrievable by one who knew better.

And so, she saved that little pad of soap for the whole rest of her trip there, carefully wrapping it in tissue and stashing it away each day before she left to explore Las Vegas, saving it from a wasteful demise. And as a special boon, she was able to save the new soaps for future travels...hopefully outside the US.


We were rolling on the floor in hysterics, me more than anyone. Until it suddenly hit me:

My first day at my new job, right as I entered the door, I was greeted by the friendly Shawn. It was right at the tail end of the horrendous heat wave we had in the Bay Area last month (five days straight over 100/40 degrees Fahrenheit/Celsius!). And so, I was parched. He offered me a cup of water and I gratefully accepted.

The cup was a fairly large waxed-paper cup, and so I reused it several times throughout the day without much thinking about it. At the end of the day, I started clearing things off my desk, and placed the cup on the coaster and tucked it into the back corner of my desk.

I returned the next day only to find it missing. The janitor had cleaned the night before and had thrown the cup out with the cup water. I was distraught but determined. That day, I had one cup for coffee and one for my water, but that night, instead of leaving them out on my desk, I sneakily slid the cabinet door behind my desk open and tucked the cups away for the night.

In this way, I saved and reused the cups for several weeks until they were just too decayed to use again. With a tear in my eye, for they had been good to me, I threw them in the recycling.

Now, I'm not sure that it was because either of us had been in China for too long, or if it was just our environmentally friendly or parsimonious ways that made us so unwilling to part with these small luxuries, but it does make you think about how wasteful we in America truly can be.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Iraq Syndrome

Every once in a while, I will read an article that just so resonates with me that I can't help but want to share it with everyone I know. Today, it's The Iraq Syndrome will haunt America by Stephen Biddle and Ray Takeyh. I think it's an astute analysis of the problems America is facing today. Go read it!


Friday, August 11, 2006

Here's a tip

In my most recent assignment, I've been busy looking up reporters from various news sources throughout the US. The fun part about this job is that I get to see what news is important in different parts of the US. For example, yesterday had a main feature from pretty much every airport talking about people throwing out their make-up.

Today's top story from the Indianapolis Star? Terrorism? Bombings? Lebanon? Of course not.

Nope, today's top story: Having a Cow- Bovine birthing tent a big hit with fairgoers

Now, I've seen cows giving birth before, I mean I grew up in Colorado. It's an interesting thing to watch, I'm sure, but front page news? Come on. Although, maybe Indiana is just trying to justify why it should be the state with the most terrorist targets in the US by pointing them out.

If you've never seen a cow give birth before, I would recommend checking out the "Cow Cam" link on the left of the page.


Thursday, August 10, 2006

Former Czechoslovakia

One of my jobs at the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education is editing. And frankly, I'm finding it quite enjoyable. It’s like grading, expect for people who actually speak English. It’s amazing.

Plus, I’m good at being nitpicky. For example, they used the phrase, “’x-state’ lags all other states in….” I thought that “lags behind” sounded better, and I could prove it with transitive and intransitive verbs, but they didn’t really want to listen.

Or, yesterday I encountered a document that referred to one of the countries of the former Czechoslovakia as “the Slovak Republic.” Now, this in and of itself, is correct. But we must look at context. The other countries mentioned were things like: France, Ireland, and the Czech Republic. Each of these country names is its official short version according to the CIA World Factbook. What about the Slovak Republic? Official long name—Slovakia being the official short name.

I brought it up as, “the annoying nitpicky thing that I had to bring up because everything else was perfect and I needed to find an error.” And my direct supervisor, Shawn, brought up “Sudan,” versus “The Sudan.” Or “Ukraine” versus “The Ukraine.” And I thought to myself, ‘well, I’ve never heard of ‘The Ukraine,’ but why is it sometimes called ‘The Sudan?’’

I tried researching it, but I couldn’t find an answer. Why the heck is it sometimes referred to as ‘The Sudan.’ I know that in Arabic it’s as-Sudan, but Iraq is al-Iraq but we don’t call it ‘The Iraq,’ so seriously, what’s the deal?