Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Episode 18: Girls' Night and Summer

Friday is finally (finally!) the last day of classes. June 20. A day before Summer Solstice. How is it possible that a third of what is typically “summer vacation” has already slipped by and I am still teaching? While all my colleagues in the U.S. (the sane ones with actual lives as opposed to the over-achievers who report to their offices even during the summer – which is really just sick and wrong) are walking around in flip-flops and tank tops. They are professors on summer vacation: reading on porch swings, sitting in their comfy chairs, composing articles or book drafts while sipping an iced latte, and pulling weeds out of a vegetable garden whenever they feel like it. Meanwhile, in China I have been planning lessons and grading papers, delivering lectures and demo lessons, meeting with students and writing comments on their work until my hand cramps up like a shriveled, sad walnut. I am running around as if it weren’t June but April. It ain’t right, Madge. It ain’t right.
Some sort of corn snack (processed into tubes)
sold on the street near Big Goose Pagoda

I decided we (the Royal and collective “we”) needed some time to kick back and drink a beer. I planned a Girls’ Night for all my favorite female friends in China. I also thought that, since all the guests were going to be Chinese, I would make some American food and see what they thought: cous-cous with vegetables, biscuits and baked beans, homemade pizza, homemade bread, some cheese (Swiss and Camembert), watermelon (in season and as sweet as candy), chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake.

I spent the week, around classes and grading, shopping and preparing food. On Saturday morning, Z and I got up early and started cleaning the apartment. It took us 4 hours and the place looked great. I went to the grocery store to pick up some last minute items and left Z to his own devices. When I got back with my cart full of food, I opened the door and was met by Z. “Don’t go in the office. At least not without shoes.”
Flowers from Wenning (Girls' Night)


“Um. I was trying to get something off the book shelf and it was high and, well, you know that glass jar of fake fruit that was on the bookshelf . . . well, it fell off and broke.”

Bless his heart, Z had tried to clean up the mess before I got home. The problem was, the jar was not filled with water, but oil. There was an oil slick all over the office floor, trailing down the hall and into the kitchen (where he tried to bring a dustpan full of oil and broken glass). The dust pan (and everything else) was so slick with oil he dropped it in the middle of the kitchen. Splat. Oil everywhere.

I now deeply sympathize with all those environmental scientists who spent weeks trying to clean up the BP oil spill. Sopping up an oil slick is no easy trick. Mop and soapy water only smeared it around, a viscous "ice" rink. I finally resorted to sopping most of the miserable mess up with newspapers and then getting on hands-and-knees to clean up what the newspapers left behind. With Z on all fours in the office and I crawling along the hall/kitchen we managed to clean the mess in about two hours.

Cleaning the floors twice in one day wasn’t really part of the plan.

Just after getting the last bit of tile de-oiled, Tiantian knocked on the door. She wanted to watch me make the cake. Apparently American cakes are a bit different than Chinese cakes. First of all, I just dump everything in a bowl and stir. I don’t measure beyond what “looks right;” I don’t sift or do “dry ingredients” and “wet ingredients.” Eggs are not separated and beat according to whites/yolks. There is no segregation in my baking: everything is dumped in the bowl and then mixed with arm muscle. This I learned from my grandmother who also liked to bake (mostly because, like me, she had a sweet tooth and baking offered an instant reward). Cooking I really don’t like; who cares about cooking? I do it because I have to eat and feed my child. But baking I do because I like to. It’s easy. Just dump and stir. Viola! Sweet goodness, both in the dough and in the baked goodies (but really, the dough is just as good; no need to bake).

I am not sure whether Tiantian was disappointed with my lack of flair. She had learned eggs must be separated and whites beat separately into peaked froth, worthy of cupid butts. She had taken a cake baking course where they measured things precisely using a scale. She had been taught you could only stir in one direction. What? That is just crazy talk. Stir in one-direction? Who in the world thought that up? Some OCD bakery chef with too much time on her hands, that’s who. Stir in one direction. The idea.

Even though I told my friends they did not need to bring anything to Girls’ Night, everyone arrived bearing food stuffs, flowers, and even toys for Z. The women came dressed to the nines in summer dresses and heeled sandals. They all looked lovely . . . and me in my (oily, sweaty) yoga pants and tunic. I had bottles of wine ready, but no one wanted to drink (most Chinese women don’t seem to drink). Juan reported that she didn’t know what Girls’ Night was so she looked it up on Google. Interesting, I said. I had made the stupid cultural assumption that Girls’ Night was universal. Not so. What did she find when she Googled it, I asked? She reported: Girls’ Night involved drinking and talking, usually about personal problems. Hmmm. Interestingly enough, that sounds about right.
Girls' Night Group: (L to R) QingQing, Tiantian,
Helen and her mom, me, Juan, Yanping,
Wenning, Mandy, and ZhuLinFei.
We had a fantastic Girls’ Night without either drinking much or talking about personal problems. We laughed a lot and ate a lot. It is a truly wonderful group of women. I wish I had thought of having Girls’ Night earlier and more often. The chocolate chip cookies and chocolate cake were hits and the pizza seemed to disappear. The cous-cous had too many weird spices: “Takes like Indian food” (not a compliment). No one touched the cheese – except the adventuresome Helen who immediately made a sour face and spit it out saying, “It isn’t sweet! It isn’t sweet!” Later, Helen tried again (she must have thought she had simply chosen a “bad” cheese square), but had the same experience. I believe she is likely to be done with cheese. Dairy is simply not part of the Chinese diet. Yogurt is a new addition to the scene and it is a drink, not a food. The Muslim Quarter sells wonderful homemade yogurt in quaint little glass jars; you drink it with a straw. I didn’t mind hogging the cheese to myself. It's been awhile since I smeared a wad of quality Camembert onto homemade bread. More for me.

Sitting around in a room full of smart, engaged, interesting women, laughing and talking for hours on end was just the tonic I needed to push through the final three weeks of the term. It is hard to imagine that these are friends I won’t see again once I leave China next month. Smart and vivacious women are an elixir that has sustained me throughout my life in many different geographic locations. Ah, to live life fully is to regularly spend time in the company of such women.

Traditional Chinese Medicine at the
hospital pharmacy

 \Traditional Chinese Medicine

Before leaving China, there are some things I want to make sure I do and one of them is/was consult a traditional Chinese medicine doctor. Tiantian offered to be my guide, so last week we set out for our first visit to one of the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) hospitals in Xi’an.

In my mind, I envisioned a TCM doc would operate out of a little shop with jars of mushrooms and herbs and other things stacked against the walls in dusty, sagging rows. Perhaps these practitioners still exist in corners of the city or countryside, but we headed to the hospital. Anytime one interacts with a government entity, one knows the process is not going to be quick. I don’t think this is any different in China than it is the U.S. -- just more people. The process of seeing a doc at the TCM hospital involved so many stations, there is no way I would have been able to figure it out without a guide and a map.

Step 1: Arrive at the hospital and stand outside the window to get a slip of paper with your appointment time on it. Wait time: 5-10 minutes.

Step 2: Carry appointment slip over to “pay for your appointment” station. Wait time: 10-20 minutes. Pay 6-9 RMB (about $1-$1.50 to see a TCM doc; considerably cheaper than what it would be in the states, yes? In fact, I would be hard pressed to think of anything medical—let alone a face-to-face visit with a doctor – that would cost less than $2; maybe a Q-tip?)

Step 3: Take your receipt and head to the area of the hospital specializing in your ailment. We were directed to third floor: reproductive health (my problem involves fibroid tumors).

Tiantian's mocha at the cafe
Step 4: Stand in line to give your receipt to a young person in a lab coat who will then ask you questions about why you are visiting the TCM doc today. He/she writes it all down in a little book that becomes your book; the doctor also writes in this book and you take it with you when you go, bringing it back for the next visit. Wait time: 20-30 minutes.

Step 5: Your little booklet is placed in a stack on the doc’s desk. There were ten people before me. Wait time: 20-30 minutes. The math reveals that the doc typically sees people for less than 5 minutes.

Step 6: Visit with the TCM doc. She is sitting on a stool at a desk in front of a computer. You sit on a stool next to her. She takes your pulse (in both wrists). She looks at your tongue. She checks out your eyes by pulling down your lower lid. She reads your booklet and asks some questions. Her diagnosis: my “Xu” is weak. Tiantian said this is always the diagnosis with TCM. You wouldn’t be at the doc if you didn’t have weak “Xu.” Xu a difficult word to translate. It means something along the lines of “not solid.” Not stalwart. Weak and mushy, perhaps. It refers to the general state of your body, psyche, health. The TCM doc writes down your prescription on the computer and prints it off. Five minutes or less. The doctor we saw was warm, professional, and very attentive. I can’t imagine how she maintains that attitude seeing the swarms of women she does. In any given hour she is seeing, diagnosing, and sending on their way at least 6-12 patients with Xu problems that involve their reproductive organs. More, if she can manage. The back-up in the wait area is daunting.

TCM pharmacy, measuring herbs, mushrooms
to make packets for soup
Step 7: Take your prescription and go downstairs to pay for it. A week's worth of herbs/mushrooms = $30. Wait time: 10-15 minutes.

Step 8: (Almost done!) Take your receipt and prescription to the station where they fill it. You have three choices: traditional herbs that you then boil into a soup; packets of dried powder made from the herbs that you add boiling water to make the instant soup; capsules/pills of the herbs. I chose to get the packets of herbs because Tiantian said boiling the herbs into soup involved a lot more than just dumping the stuff into a pot and boiling it. Wait time: 30 minutes. (Tiantian and I went across the street to the mall and had a coffee while we waited).

Step 9: Pick up your packet of stuff, measured out into doses for each day of the week; only enough for one week because TCM docs want to see you every week until they solve your problem. Tiantian said very traditional TCM docs want to see their patients every three days, but in the large hospital, typically it is once a week.

TCM herb mixture
Step 10: Leave the hospital with your weeks’ worth of herbs/mushrooms about 4 hours after you arrived.

I dutifully made and drank my herb soup (thick, brackish stuff that has the taste of sweet tree bark or some moss-covered earth) twice a day for a week and then Tiantian and I went back to the hospital a week later. Same process. A morning spent waiting and shifting from station to station. My American face got me pushed to the front of the line more than once. I felt guilty about that, but Tiantian thought it was an absolute coup. The TCM doc adjusted my potion prescription and I got another week’s worth. I will be able to go back one more time before I leave the country. The doc said it may take three months of the soup to change anything. I may have to pack an extra small bag full of TCM medicine to get me to the three month mark, but
Soup made from TCM
I am curious enough about the process to commit to the extra baggage.

Parasol Weather

Hot. Sunny. Intense rains and then warm days. It is parasol weather in Xi’an. Parasol season began about three weeks ago. The parasols are lovely little portable shade conveyance systems and most young women don’t go out without them. It is charming to see young women strolling around the city with their pastel, glittery parasols. They are often sporting kicky, feminine summer frocks and high heels. There are short skirts with layers of ruffles, flirty summer dresses made of chiffon and lace, zip-up-the-back fitted frocks of summer garden colors with net crinolines under fluffy knee-length skirts. The young women don’t seem to step out of the house without an eye-catching ensemble (matching bag, shoes, and parasol).

It is such a lovely hot-weather tableau, if you don’t stop to think about how sweaty, scratchy and uncomfortable all those feminine accoutrements must be (especially the strappy, high-heeled sandals). I told Daniel, a Nebraska college student here for a four-month internship (he goes home next week), when he lands in the Midwest, he is going to take one look around and say to himself, “Where did all the lesbians come from?” The difference in fashion choice and aesthetic between Midwestern college women and Chinese college women cannot be overstated. He admitted it might be a tough transition.

Parasol woman by the campus fountain
At school the hot weather means no school uniforms. No more sailor suits with flashy little red Mao scarves tied jauntily around the neck. Z is thrilled with shorts and t-shirts and sandals. He has two more days of Chinese Public Education and they are made all the more comfortable without polyester sailor suits.

The little girls at Z’s school have taken the opportunity (or their parents have) of dressing in their own version of summer attire. The little button-up-the-back cotton, seersucker, and dotted-Swiss dresses harken back to what I and my sister wore as children. White Peter-pan collars, puffed sleeves, rick-rack and careful smocking with embroidery remind me of the Sunday clothes of my childhood. The sashes that tie in the back and full-swirling skirts set off with lace-trimmed anklets are a far cry from the “I’m a Baby Ho” fashion that little girls in the states wear. It is difficult to imagine any 10-year-old girl in the states wearing one of these baby-doll dresses, trading in their belly shirts, “making me look way older than I am” tight-fitting jeans, and neon colors. The Mylie Cyrus/Taylor Swift wee wannabees always make me cringe in discomfort: pedophile bait. Here, it is refreshing to see children dressed like children instead of like mini ill-behaving or slovenly adults.

Little girl on the back of her father's bike

My friend Bridget tells the story of sending her daughter to school in the U.S. in age-appropriate fashion. One day Hannah came home and said, “Why do you always make me wear cute clothes. The other girls don’t wear ‘cute’. They wear cool.” She was in kindergarten. Sigh.

World Cup Mania

I don’t know about the U.S., but in China the soccer World Cup, this year in Brazil, is a big deal. So big that people are staying up all night to watch the games live (“live” in Brazil means 3-6 a.m. in China). On the Chinese Internet there are doctors advertising notes with invented illnesses so you can sleep in and not have to worry about getting to work.

Last day of school uniforms;
Z inside the school gate
Sunday morning, we were on the bus going to Z’s calligraphy class and the bus was suspiciously empty, a note-worthy oddity in China. I felt like we were the last people heading out of town during an apocalypse: the rare survivors.  I couldn’t figure out where everyone was. There were two or three other people on the bus, all of them lolling around as the bus bumped along drooling in a drug-like stupor.

It took me most of the ride to figure out the reason: China was sleeping in. There had been a soccer match on at 3 a.m.


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