Saturday, December 27, 2008

Who's the palest of them all?

by Ruth

China does strange things to your self-esteem. On one hand, you are viewed as a superstar. On the other hand, you have to continually embarrass yourself in public. And that's not all.

China has definitely made me think differently about my looks. It's kind of reassuring to have people (not just Kevin) tell me I'm beautiful every other day: my students, other people's students, random strangers. I always say, "No-no-no," but who doesn't like to hear they're pretty sometimes? There is only partial satisfaction in their analysis of me, though, because they have some different standards. One of the reasons they think I'm so beautiful is because of my pale skin. Pale skin is very attractive, and the fairer the better. Instead of tanning lotion stores sell whitening creams. When my sister Anna came to visit (Anna, who was often described as a "porcelain doll" growing up, much to her distaste), they just couldn't get over her skin.

They also like my "yellow" hair (all foreigner's hair is yellow) and my big eyes. Some Chinese people don't have an eyelid crease and will actually pay to get a crease put in. They also tend to have shorter, thinner eyelashes. And this year several students have told me they want noses that are tall like mine.

So they don't believe me when I tell them that in America, I'm quite average. And that my pale skin is not exactly considered an asset. I tell them how Americans like to be tanned but I don't think they believe me. I tell them they think I'm beautiful just cause I look different, but they have a hard time grasping there are whole countries full of people who look just like me (in general, in their eyes).

When I walk into class wearing a skirt or a scarf or with a different hairstyle, my students often sigh and exclaim. I can almost predict which outfits/scarves/earring will make them sigh, and I try to dole them out accordingly. For example, if I wear a scarf in my hair and long earrings and a skirt, it's just too much. They won't pay attention to anything I say. It kind of reminds me of the third graders I taught who would be equally distracted by long earrings or a baby who just has to take a grab at the necklace.

Sometimes it's a little spooky/intimidating, a student I just met remembers the exact outfit I wore two years ago. Sometimes it's annoyingly distracting when a student interrupts a deep, profound conversation to say, "Your eyes are so pretty." Sometimes it's funny/flattering when several students come up to me after class wanting me to show them how to fix their hair. In general, it's a welcome counterbalance to "the other hand."

Especially the first year or two in China, I became extra self conscious about my body. Partly because suddenly hundreds of people were staring at me everywhere I went. Partly because I was surrounded by hundreds of girls (and, let's be honest, boys too) who were so thin they were almost two dimensional. I've usually felt okay about my weight, but really, who needs that? I had never seen so many tiny people in my life. I started feeling huge. Students sometimes make "tactful" comments, like looking at pictures they will say, "I think you are less fat than then." Thanks? And yet they still ask me for weigh loss advice. Truly baffling.

Many women think that shopping for bathing suits is bad, but they should just try shopping in China. For starters, I can automatically eliminate about 3/4 of the clothes as "I would never be able to get into that." When I bought shirts, I had to find an extra large, and pants were out of the question. My arms seem to be a full inch or two longer than any Chinese shirts. And then there's the fact that 98% of Chinese girls are pretty much, well, flat up front. They have the bodies of pre-adolescent models. I don't know why I still tried going clothes shopping. I've completely given it up this year in China, and I think I feel a lot better about myself.

My height and big feet don't help things. I don't mind being tall, but sometimes when I realize just how short some of my students are (about the height of those third graders), I started feeling like a giant. Whenever I try to buy shoes, I automatically look for the largest size available (which is around a 7.5-8) and then it's still a bit too small. When the shop keepers give me that "of course we don't have a bigger size" look I start feeling like a kangaroo.

All in all though, I am once again coming to terms with my looks. I generally ignore a lot of the stares, don't think much about the "you're so beautiful" comments, and try to avoid shopping. But I have realized that the staring sometimes still gets to me.

When everyone I walk past looks at me, my natural response is, "Something must be wrong! Is my hair sticking up? Do I have a stain on my shirt?" No matter how many times I remind myself that they are staring at me because of my skin and my hair and my shirt and my height and the fact that everything about me is different, I find it hard to quell the impulse to smooth my hair and check that everything's in order. I wonder if real superstars feel the same way...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Superstar

By Ruth

I have been doing far too much public singing lately. It’s not because I sing so well, but rather because I am a famous superstar. I am a famous superstar because I have a white face. Students I have never seen before greet me by name. People invite themselves over to my house. Random strangers want to take pictures with me. I run interference on my phone calls (shh, don’t tell). And I sing in public.

On Friday, I was on the school radio program, the one that blasts through the loudspeakers at 6am, 12pm, and 6pm every day. Two of my students help with the “English Garden” broadcast and they wanted to interview me about Christmas. They asked me lots of questions and then gave information about Christmas. When I didn’t understand what they were saying, I just smiled and said, “uh-huh.” Like when one student talked about hanging presents on the tree or the other one said that children put pillowcases by the fireplace hoping they will get more candy. I figured that nobody could really understand what was being said anyway, so it didn’t matter too much.

I did not smile and nod, however, when my student tried to invite the whole campus over to our apartment on Christmas day. When she found out we would still be here at Christmas she said, “Oh, this is a good opportunity to celebrate with your students! Just tell us the place and time and we will come to your apartment!” I gave one of those fake laughs and said, “I don’t think everyone could fit in my apartment.” When she kept pressing, I stopped fake laughing and started giving her menacing looks, which she failed to notice.

At the end of the program, she asked me to sing a song. I sang “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (while other music was playing in the background). I didn’t mind so much because, once again, I figured nobody could really understand what was going on. When I got back, Kevin said he had understood about two words of the whole thing.


Monday night, however, everyone heard the singing as we were on stage with full volume microphones and a crowd of people before us. It was the English Department Christmas performance, and it was a big deal. Students have been auditioning and practicing for weeks, and they even told us about it weeks in advance. They had marked us down for a performance before we even agreed to it.

The stairway leading up to the third floor auditorium were decorated with ribbons and bows. Students were lined up on either side of the door like ushers, some of them my students wearing suits! They looked so cute. As we walked in, the room was already full and everyone started clapping as we made our way down the aisle because we are superstars. We were midway through the performance, right in the middle of half a dozen singers, a few humorous skits, and several belly-dancers. You know, traditional Christmas. Some of my students did a Romeo and Juliette type skit and even though I couldn’t understand the Chinese, it was really funny. Another student did one of the belly-dances, and I have to say, she was really quite talented.

My hope was that by the time our turn came, everyone would already be deafened by painfully loud speakers. Our seats of honor were of course directly in front of the speakers, and I kept my finger over my ear the whole performance to keep anything in there from bursting. The speakers were so loud and piercing that the balloons decorating the stage kept popping throughout the performance.

When we paraded on stage, everyone cheered at the sight of us. This was good, since really the sight of our white, foreign faces was the most important part of our involvement. We sang a Christmas medley in English and Chinese, and I think we sounded pretty bad. Our music started but then messed up, which was quite a bummer. We were counting on the music to help drowned us out. It was a little painful, but nobody pays a lot of attention anyway. Santa came slinking out several times to distract people as well. (He definitely did slink...talk about creepy Santa). At the end, we allowed ourselves to be mobbed for pictures before heading back home. That's where those security guards in dark glasses ushering you to your limo would come in handy.


Oh yes, and yesterday we led students in singing Christmas Carols in front of the teaching building. Only about 50 came because it was freezing, freezing cold. This time, singing in public wasn’t really bad. The students didn’t sound so great themselves (but then, they were singing songs they had just learned), but they were very enthusiastic. I’m hoping this ends my public singing spree. One week more and we’re out of here. After I have all 140 of my students over to visit next week. Such is the life of a superstar.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Happy DōngZhì

By Kevin

"Do you want to come and eat jiaozi with us?" Wes asked, relatively certain that we'd say yes.

After all, today is Dec. 21 -- the first official day of winter, Winter Solstice Festival, or Mid-Winter Festival. "冬至 DōngZhì"

Even in our third year in China, we didn't realize this was a big holiday. Probably got obscured by Christmas in the past.

"It means, winter is coming," explained Lily, our Chinese tutor. She's right. It's been downright cold lately.

Lily and Cherry, Wes' Chinese tutor, came to his apartment at 2 p.m. They went shopping for materials to make dumplings from scratch for five. Around 4:30 p.m., they started making dumplings. It wasn't until after 7:30 p.m. that all of them were cooked and on the table. Cherry and Lily had insisted that we sit down and start eating while they were still in the kitchen -- after all, when you are cooking for guests, traditionally, the cook stays in the kitchen in China. But we were very American about it, so we waited and some of the dumplings got cold.

Lily explained that today most Chinese people would be eating dumplings.

Indeed, by the time we got home at 9 p.m., a roomful of our neighbors was still slaving away in their kitchen (which we can see into from our kitchen) making jiaozi. In fact, by 10:45 p.m. as I post this, they are still going strong.

"We eat dumplings because they are the same shape as ears," she explained. "If we don't eat dumplings today, our ears will freeze this winter." she explained. It seems they do so many things because the sounds of words are the same. This was the first time I could recall hearing that they eat a particular food because it looks like a body part they don't want to get frostbitten.

We laughed and sat down to eat and chat.

We exchanged the different names we have for grandparents, which made me miss Oma and Opa and the rest of my family. Ruth shared about Memaw and Pebaw. The girls shared about their WaiPo (maternal grandmother), LaoYe (maternal grandfather), NaiNai (paternal grandmother) and YeYe (paternal grandfather). The Chinese have separate words for paternal and maternal grandparents, but they explained that they also have pet names they use for their grandparents in their villages.

Eventually, we learned that Lily is an only child because in the time she was born, it was illegal for teachers to have more than one child. "If she had another child, she would loose her job."

Lily, like many in this generation filled with only children, wished that she had a sibling.

Then we learned that Cherry has an older brother who she never calls by his given name. "In our China, you never call anyone in your family who is older than you by their name," Lily explained.

"I remember one time I called him by his name and my mother punished me," Cherry exclaimed. "Now I only use it when I quarrel with him."

Cherry announced that she used to dislike having an older brother, but that the other day, he transferred 700 RMB into her bank account. "Now I like having an elder brother," she said, with a wide grin.

Cherry explained that her parents were going to have a third child, but that one of the leaders in their village noticed her mother's belly getting big. "He took her and drove her to the hospital and she had to have an operation," Cherry said, describing how close her younger brother came to being born. "It's so terrible."

"Those days in China, many things like this happened," explained Lily. "It was horrible."

I shared about my student in Tonghua, who only lived because his mother walked to a nearby village and hid until his birth (I wrote about this on my old blog, which you can visit here).

They explained how the fines for having more than one child were large when they were born, but now they're not as bad. "The fine hasn't changed, but people have more money now," Wes chimed in.

In fact, they have a classmate with seven siblings.

"Now, you can have more children," said Lily. "As long as you can afford them all."

But in spite of the economic growth in China, she said it's not easy for many families with more than one child. For example, she said, college is very expensive. Yearly tuition for students at this college is 4,500 RMB (about $650) -- still a big chunk of change in China.

We explained that families in America face similar difficulties, as college costs climb higher and higher.

"But we always think that America is so rich," Cherry said, surprised.

"But relatively, costs of most things are higher..." I began...

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Another take on a horrible event

Ruth just wrote about the same thing, but we decided to go ahead and post both of our thoughts...I'd encourage you to read hers too...just two different attempts at processing the bad stuff going on here...



By Kevin

This was the news we got yesterday morning: a student “fell” to her death from a window on either the 10th or 12th floor of the main building just before 10 a.m. on Saturday. We frantically called and text messaged all of our class monitors, praying that it wasn't one of ours, knowing that whoever it was now left a line of devastated people: parents likely without their only child, friends, roommates and classmates wondering what they could have done to help, school officials trying to deflect blame.

Outside, children played in the courtyard, oblivious to the mourning going on all around them.

Slowly, each messaged back, saying that all their classmates were OK. But some were home for the weekend, so they really hadn't heard.

Although the school blocked reporters from coming on campus, we began to piece together what likely happened from students who saw it happen (we don't REALLY know the details, however, because in China, officials tend to try and keep this sort of thing as quiet as possible, knowing that they may be blamed for it and lose their job, even though, in my opinion, there's absolutely nothing officials could have done to stop it).


One student said she was studying near the pond behind the main building when she saw a shadow fall from the sky, then heard the body hit the ground with a loud thud, and people began crying.

“The body fell beside a girl,” said one student. “She couldn't stop crying.”

Another student shared how she and her roommates hurried to the scene as soon as they heard the news, only to see the bloody form of a body covered in a bloody sheet. “I wish I hadn't gone,” she said, shaking.

“At first I didn't see the blood on the wall, but then my roommates pointed it out,” she said. “I can't get the image from my mind.”

According to news reports and blogs I found using Google translate, one of which showed a photo of a sheet-covered body and others of workers mopping up blood spatter (I'd recommend NOT looking), police were still investigating the cause of death and still trying to determine the girl's identity as late as this morning, because she carried no identification, only keys, and her face was so badly mangled that nobody could identify her.

Rumors swirled. Did she jump? Was she pushed? Some said it was a senior, others a junior. Some suggested a sophomore, and at least one thought it was a freshman. “Maybe she couldn't find a job,” one suggested. Others suggested a romantic falling out, an unwanted pregnancy, or failure to get into graduate school. “There is a lot of pressure.”

But almost everyone speculated suicide.

Another Internet news report posted what it claimed was a suicide note found on the campus square:

“别人的晨读声 Morning Reading other people's voice
匆忙的脚步和我这个闲人 And I am in a hurry in the footsteps of the idlers
半死人简直就是差若天渊 People half to death if it is a vast difference
阿门 Amen
我要死了 I was going to die,
不在今天 Today, not
就在明天 On tomorrow
不在明天 Not tomorrow
就在某天 Just one day
今天心死 Today disheartened
明天身死 Tomorrow dead body
某天得到永生 One day be immortalized”

A student who saw a photo of the body said that it was “too horrible.” “They made me look at it several times,” she said. “I don't know who it was. I can't stop thinking about it.”

One class monitor said that her teachers asked her to call every student in her class at least three times yesterday to confirm that she was able to reach each of them. The school was having a hard time determining who was missing on a campus of some 15,000 students because many live nearby and go home for the weekend.

I pictured all the sets of roommates who spent the night not knowing if the one who didn't come home last night might be dead. It was a few hours before I could sleep.

By this morning, at least one student seemed pretty sure: it was a junior English major from a particular class. Not in a class any of us taught, but in one that Christina's past teammates taught. I was simultaneously relieved and horrified. “How can I be grateful just that it isn't my student. She was still valuable enough for the father to send his son for her.”

So, now I'm left numb: What do you say when a student jumps from the 12th floor of the tallest building on campus – the same building where you'll be trying to give finals on Monday? Is there anything you can say that won't sound trite and incomplete?

I wondered, is there anyone for students to talk to here.

One student explained that there is a psychology department that offers counseling to students.

“We can talk to them, but most students don't feel comfortable,” she said.

“Most of our teachers will pretend this did not happen,” another said. “They will come into class, teach, then leave. We don't know who to talk to.”

We talked with them, then played dominoes, in hopes of easing their spirits a bit, then offered to pray with them.


Walking around campus today, I felt the spirit say that I needed to just sit, listen and observe near the pond behind the main building.

Unsurprisingly, almost everyone who passed by lifted their heads toward the window the girl jumped from. The ground was still wet from cleaning crews trying to clean away the blood, but one area in particular was darker than others, suggesting a landing site. The few students I saw walk towards it took tentative steps and held the hand or arm of a friend.

I felt the father say, “This is still holy ground. I am here.”

A pair of students, seeing me, asked if I'd heard the news.

One said that she was in the building when it happened. When word spread, she looked out the window and saw the bloody body. “Horrible.”

“When you were at university, did you experience this?” she asked.

“I didn't,” I said. “But I saw dead bodies when I worked as a journalist. You're right, it is horrible.”

“It's terrible,” said one. “It seems like now everybody is pessimistic, not optimistic anymore. I don't know why.”

I wanted to shake her.

“I think that everybody's thinking about death and their troubles,” I managed. “In my experience, people try to avoid thinking about those kinds of things.”

Like I said, where do you start?

An Avoidable Tragedy

by Ruth

The strange thing was, when I got Christina’s text saying, “suicide,” I wasn’t even surprised. For a few more seconds, I kept imputing grades into the computer, taking advantage of the time before the truth sunk in. I knew that once reality hit, there would be no more escape.

After 15 seconds of calm, I rushed to call Christina. The first impulse always seems to be a desire for information. It’s like if I can just know everything, maybe it will be easier to handle. But the truth comes in slowly in theses cases, mainly filtering down to us through frightened student rumors.

The suicide happened Saturday morning around 10am. A girl jumped from the twelfth floor of the classroom building. Some students were around who saw her fall. Many others, studying in classrooms, came running at the sound of the screams and saw the body on the ground before the police were able to hurry in and take it away.

For a long time, we didn’t know who the student was. The face was unrecognizable after the fall. Students began a count, calling all their classmates to make sure everyone was still okay. One student said, “I had called all my classmates four times, but my teacher said, ‘Call them again.’” We called our students to make sure they were all okay. It was the weekend, though, and many students had gone home, making it difficult to really know.

This happened in Yangzhou just two years ago. I think in some ways it is easier for me to respond this time. I am not so angry at the school for trying to keep things quiet because I know that’s how it works. The school will already lose lots of face; they are trying to minimize the loses. I am not so shocked because I know it doesn't just happen at other schools. But still, I’ve found it hard to think about anything else.

This past thirty-six hours, I feel I know a little bit of Paul’s meaning when he said, “pray continually.” Most of my prayers are unformed, just a weight of the heart, a cry of the soul. I can’t stop thinking about my students. They have just come face-to-face with something they try so hard to avoid: death. They have seen it so close, and in someone just like them. They are shocked, frightened, grieving, and traumatized. One of my students wrote me an email saying,

“When I saw the girl lying on the ground full of blood, I was so scared and shocked. I had no words to say, but sadness and fear…All of my classmates and roommates were very silent in our room today.”

Who really knows how to deal with suicide? I feel that these students especially have no idea of how to cope. Suicide is still a taboo topic, and being open about what you are thinking is hardly encouraged. Many are now haunted by horrible images.

On Saturday night, several students came over and talked to us. They were shaken, frightened, and sad. One student said there is a counselor at the school, but the other student said, “Yes, but would you really ever go to see them? People would think you were strange.” I have had several students say they could not share their struggles with their roommates for fear they would laugh at them. We talked for a while and then played Dominoes, which was a welcome distraction. We took a few minutes to lift up the girls before they left, and I think they were really touched by that.

The night was a restless one. Kevin found some articles online and what they thought was a suicide note in the form of a poem. Exhaustion struggled with emotions we still don’t know how to express. Every hour, the tragedy seems to become more real, and I remember someone else who is affected. What about the family, who may have just lost their only child? What about the roommates and classmates? What about the students who are already feeling hopeless and alone?

Sunday morning, we found out the girl was an English major, a junior student. We still don’t know which student, though. None of us taught girl, but we know a number of the other juniors. Had we smiled at her on campus or rushed by? Had she stopped in to talk with us at office hours? Who were her friends? Did anybody know what was going on inside her mind?

Sunday afternoon we walked around the campus, talking to the Father. We saw some of the girl’s classmates, who were still smiling. They probably didn’t know yet.

Tomorrow we will see our classes, and what will we say to them? I don’t think they realize how much I care about them, that I came to China for them. I want to tell them they can talk to me, but some won’t feel comfortable. I want them to treasure life and search for greater meaning. I want them to share their burdens and not try to hide their sorrows. I want them to open their eyes and see each other, to see what is really going on. I want them to know peace instead of fear, hope instead of despair, acceptance instead of tremendous pressure, and life instead of surrounding death. I know I won’t find the right words, so I hope they’ll be able to see it in my eyes.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

December: It's no Silent Night

by Ruth
December is usually a fun month (Christmas), a crazy busy month (finals), a significant month for relationships (students are starting to feel comfortable with us), and a stressful and difficult to handle month (end of semester burn-out).

This December has indeed proven to be all those things. Last weekend Kevin and I had about a dozen students come over to help decorate our apartment for Christmas. It was three hours of happy chaos. The past teachers left a bunch of Christmas decorations (thanks Hoovlers) and so we had no shortage of things to put up. After we had decorated the tree (which turned out quite nicely) and put up Christmas decorations on the walls and doors and windows and hung “garland” (tinsel) around every possible piece of furniture, I showed the students how to make Iris Paper Folding decorations. Pat, Kevin’s mother, had shown me how to do it, and it’s not that hard, but it was a little difficult to explain to students. They got the general idea though, and settled intently on their work, with paper and scissors and tape flying around. By the end the floor was as decorated as anywhere else. Most of the paper designs worked out pretty well, and the students were happy to take them back and decorate their dorms. So that was the fun (and exhausting) part.

I just finished grading phonetics quizzes and now I have to start on oral quizzes and by the end of the week I will have started final exams. I also have homework from a few weeks ago that I’ve never returned (Shh, don’t tell. I may just not return them. I’m such a bad teacher…). I have been getting discouraged because my students have been getting pretty bad scores on their quizzes overall, and that does make me feel like a bad teacher. Because they are mostly good students and trying hard, they just don’t get it. Maybe there has been improvement, but right now I’m not really seeing it.

The busyness has been compounded by the fact that we have been repeatedly unsure of when the semester would end. At first, we heard we would need to be finished with classes and finals by the 19th. After a few weeks of indecision on that point, the school leaders finally said, “If no decision is made by tomorrow, we will not end early.” Later they confirmed that classes would end at the usual time, so we would need to be done on the 26th. Then, just a few days ago, one of the leaders called Wes and we should give our final exams on the week of the 29th. This was frustrating because (1) we had finally figured out our plan for our last classes and the end of the semester, (2) several of us had already told our students about the exams they would be having on Christmas week, and (3) Kevin and I already had plane tickets and would be leaving halfway through the week we were now supposed to be giving exams. I may have yelled and fumed a bit. We finally worked it out to give the exams at the planned time and then do an extra “fun” class the last week just before we leave.

It always seems like right before we leave at the end of the semester, we start reaching new levels in relationships with students. It takes a while to get to know them and even longer for them to feel comfortable enough to open up and trust us. We have been meeting with several groups of interested students and have been having good conversations at office hours. I have had some good conversations with individual students too. They have started asking me advice, which (see earlier post), I love. Yesterday I invited a student to come over. We talked about all kinds of random things, and she told me that her high school classmates had just died the day before. So we spent a while talking about death and how it’s hard when people we know die. She said, “It is like you have shared my sorrow, thank you.” It was encouraging again to feel like maybe I am helping someone by being here.

The burnout part has been coming into most parts of life, at least for me. I remember now I would usually get this way at the end of every semester – mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted and overwhelmed. Which makes me not handle life and all the extra little cultural stresses very well. I’ve glared at several completely innocent people passing by just because they’ve looked at me the wrong way. I’m bringing out the teacher look much more often (my student answered her cell phone in the middle of a quiz the other day! Come on!)

This past week held its own drama. On Tuesday afternoon a student asked Kevin if we would be the questioners for a speech competition on Thursday. When Kevin asked me I immediately said, “NO.” Some of you still think I’m a nice person, and I have my moments, but lately I feel like the niceness factor is wearing very thin. I was feeling completely overwhelmed and exhausted and we had just shown our lovely foreign faces at a song competition a few days before. We had already agreed to be interviewed for the radio program this week and sing for the Christmas program the next. But when Kevin told the student we could do it, she said, “Oh, I know you are kind and I think you will be able to do it.”

See, when people “ask” or “invite” us to do something, it’s not so much an invitation as an assumption we have already said yes, even though we didn’t know anything about the even two minutes ago. I can’t blame the students too much for being pushy and putting tons of pressure on us, because they are getting tons of pressure as well. I still find it frustrating though, and my Americanism calls for immediate digging in of the heels. I’m not going to get bullied into something!
So finally they gave up on us and moved on to Christina, and then to Wes. One student tried to get Christina to move her lecture. Another student tried to get Wes to move his class. Christina agreed to do the competition if they would find another time for the lecture. They couldn’t do it, and finally on Thursday a student came to Christina and said, “I think this has been a cultural difference.” Basically, her analysis was that Chinese people help their friends but Americans, if they already have something scheduled, will not help their friends. Blaaaah! I knew this was going to turn into a cultural mess.

I have been thinking about it this past few days. I know it was a bad situation where everyone lost face. I guess we should have just said yes, but where in the world do you draw the line? No wonder we get so burned out by the end of the semester. There are so many problems when foreigners are inserted into this system of guanxi (where you help a friend, regardless, and then they help you out later – the brief somewhat-accurate explanation). For one thing, we have about 500 people who consider us “friends.” And since for about 99.7% we are the only foreign friend they have, they come to us whenever they need a foreign friend. If we don’t help them, they lose face and we lose face. But there is no way we could possibly agree to every request/demand placed upon us without going crazy. Maybe someone could, those people with super human power who run themselves into the ground, but I know I can’t. I’m already at my limit.

So what do we do? How do we solve this problem? How are we supposed to do any kind of good if people think we aren’t helpful? How are we supposed to do any kind of good if we crash and burn?
This December, I feel caught in a place with no easy solution.

Friday, December 5, 2008

"My Grandmother doesn't have a Name"

by Ruth

Two Chinese major students were having dinner with Kevin, Wes, and I. Cherry is Wes’ Chinese tutor and Lily is ours. She is very patient with our slow, stumbling attempts. We were talking about Chinese names because she was helping Kevin choose a Chinese name.

“How about Bo Wen? Ruth said you are smart and like to learn, so I think this is a good name.”

Wes said, “I think that is the same ‘bo’ as in the word for phD.” Kevin said, “Maybe that name is too smart for me!”

My student Gabrielle, (along with all of her roommates), recently helped me choose a Chinese name: Jing Yi (jing like jingle, with a falling tone; yi like a long E sound, with a rising tone). The jing means “quiet and smart”; Gabrielle said it popular for girls’ names. Yi means “friendship.” I liked that because it has a similar meaning to Ruth (friend). When Lily heard the name, she said, “Oh, that’s a very good name!” That was a good response. Much better than, “Hmm. That’s interesting.” “Interesting,” when used by Chinese, really means strange in a particularly unpleasant way.

We were also discussing how to choose a family name. Choosing a family name for yourself seems even stranger than choosing a given name. Nobody chooses a family name – you just get stuck with one! Wes said we should just choose one of the common names that sounds good, and Cherry started rattling off a whole list of very common names. We also discussed whether we should have the same family name or not. In China, married couples don’t have the same family name because the woman keeps her maiden name. But the children receive the father’s family name (need I say, “of course.”) Thus, a woman’s family name will still die out if she doesn’t have any brothers.

So it was during this discussion that Cherry casually said, “My grandmother doesn’t have a name.” After some of the things I’ve already heard, I really shouldn’t have been surprised. But still – not having a name?

“My grandmother is 85 years old,” Cherry said. “In old times in China, especially when people had many children, they would not give names to the girls. They were just called ‘first child’ or ‘second child.’”

“But what about with her friends or other people her own age – wasn’t there a name they would use for her?” we asked.

“In that time, girls did not really go outside of the household very much.” With few outside friends and no school, I guess you don’t really need a name…in some twisted form of logic.

I asked, “What about if the fa

mily had many boys. Would all of the boys get names or only the first one?”

“Of course all the boys had names.”

“If a girl was called ‘first child’ but she married a man who was also the first child, she would have to change her name to be ‘second,’” Lily added.

I think about parents expecting a baby or parents with a newborn child. Choosing a name – something special that will show their wishes for the child, that will show their value of the child, that will give the child identity. In China, having a name with a good meaning is especially important. It often shows the parent’s hopes and dreams for the child.

Imagine having no name. No personal identity. No parental hopes and dreams. Just a number- and in your own family.


Sometimes I forget how much has changed. One grandmother who lives in our apartments still has bound feet. I forget there are still people alive who have lived in such a different world. And in China, any grandparent has lived through so many drastic periods of change it’s a wonder they are still alive at all!

Much has changed in America in the past 85 years too, but there is still no comparison. When I think of my grandmother not having a name – well, I can’t even imagine it.

“Of course, many things have changed in China,” Cherry said. “Now it is hard to imagine.”

As we all marveled over this revelation about the not-so-distant past, a verse came to mind:


“I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it.”


I want that so much for those who never had a name. I remember so many students who have said their grandmothers were followers. Can you imagine the joy of going from nameless to eternally named? And they are named. He names the stars, he knows the hairs of each “nameless” head, and he has their names written on his hand. Each one of those nameless grandmothers has a name. I just wish they had the chance to know it. Who will reach the grandmothers?