Monday, April 30, 2012

The Chinese Driving Test (part two)

By Kevin

As I waited to take my Chinese driving examination, a roomful of test-takers stared at an endless loop of horrific deadly traffic accidents that was playing on a big-screen TV in the front of the room – the kind of things you might see on World's Wildest Police Videos or Driver's Ed class. In spite of what one might gather from watching Chinese people actually drive, the government takes its responsibility to ensure that driver's – at least in their head – know both rules of the road and the consequences for ignoring them.

While living in China, one of the things I miss about the States is being able to hop into a car and drive wherever I want to go. Now I can. It took three tries, but I now have permission to weave in and out of Chinese traffic behind the wheel of a car. I'm just not quite sure exactly when I'll get up the nerve to use it.

About half the foreigners I've told that I just got my Chinese driver's license think I'm crazy. “Why would you even want to drive in China. Driver's are insane,” they protest. And I agree. Chinese traffic is crazy. I have neither the money, nor a plan to buy a car. However, if we want to rent a car and drive out to the mountains for a day, now we won't have to worry about hiring a driver to bring us. We've heard rumors that China may soon phase out the English exam for foreigners, so we figured if I ever want to get a license, now is the time to do it.

Getting my driver's license in California was easy. I was 16. For a couple months, I took an after-school driver's ed class, studied the regulations in the DMV manual, went to the DMV armed with my birth certificate and passed a short written exam on the first try to get my driver's permit. A couple months later, after a behind-the-wheel class and nervous practice with my parents, I also passed the behind-the-wheel exam on the first try and became a licensed driver.

The process is a bit different in China, as one of our friends found out when it took him five trips all the way across town to the City's Vehicle Management Bureau(车管所 - chē guǎn suǒ) before he walked away with his license.

Unfortunately, the People's Republic of China didn't ratify the 1949 Geneva Convention on Road Traffic – an agreement allowing participating nations worldwide to honor foreign driver's licenses. So that means foreigners have to get a Chinese license in order to drive.

Thankfully, while the process certainly isn't easy for foreigners who already have a foreign driver's license, it's simpler than it is for Chinese people.

Our Chinese teacher, who just took her written driving exam, said the process for Chinese people is long. In addition to practical things like behind-the-wheel training and learning the rules of the road, she also had to spend four hours one afternoon at an intersection watching a traffic cop attempt to direct traffic. I say “attempt” because most drivers seem to whiz by, either blatantly ignoring or oblivious to the cop's somewhat difficult-to-decipher hand signals. She was surprised to find that foreigners were exempt from this step, in addition to being exempt from having to take a Chinese behind-the-wheel exam. Apparently the rules are different from city-to-city. Some foreigners we know have had to do a Chinese behind-the-wheel exam, but in Yinchuan, it isn't a requirement.

However, foreigners here do still have to jump through several extra hoops. First, there's the paperwork: first, you need an official government-translated copy of your passport and foreign driver's license. Naturally, the only place to get one of these is all the way on the other side of the city, far from where most of the foreigners live. And it take the better part of two whole afternoons to get the job done (one to drop it off, another when you return a few days later to pick it up).

Then there's the the local police clearance permit (居留证 -- jū liú zhèng). You have to go to your local neighborhood police station and pick up a paper certifying that you live where you say you live and how long you've been in China since you last left the country. The first time I went, the officer in charge of printing these out puffed away on a cigarette while he dug up all the right information in his computer, but then the station's Internet connection crashed, so he was unable to print out a copy. “Come back tomorrow.” He said. Naturally, the next day he wasn't there. Day three, a school official called on my behalf, but again he was out. It wasn't until my third trip to the Police Station that he was able to produce the small piece of paper, which he printed on the back of scrap paper. I glanced over the paper and asked if I could have an official red government “chop” on the paper, which is required when involved in any government-related activity. He sighed loudly and begrudgingly waked his supervisor, who was napping on his office couch, to ask for the key to another office. Naturally, they kept the official red stamp that marked it as a genuine government-approved document under lock and key at all times.

Then there was the health exam. In California, doctors aren't involved in the process of obtaining a driver's license. But in China, they want to make sure that you're healthy and able before entrusting the nation's roads to you. So I went with a teammate, who was also working on getting his license, to the local hospital. In the first exam, the doctor asked how tall my teammate was, wrote down what he said, then looked over at me, saw that I was a bit taller, and wrote my height as 185 cm – chopping 6 cm off of my actual height. He never actually measured either of us. Then we found our way to the next exam room: eyes. Chinese eye exam charts are designed for the illiterate. They're filled with the letter “E” placed facing four directions. You just tell the doctor which way it is pointing. The doctor decided that I could see clearly enough by asking me to read one letter covering my right eyes, then one covering my left. We also had to read a colored number on a small sheet to prove we weren't color-blind. Then we were done. Finally, we did a hearing test. The doctor, standing behind me, rang a small tuning fork next to each ear and I identified which ear it was closer to. We got the requisite approval stamps and it was finished. In and out in a relatively quick half-hour.
Filling out the paperwork needed for our applications was also tricky, because it's completely in Chinese and we don't have a class to teach us “government jargon Chinese 401.” Thankfully, we have a friend from Singapore who was able to help us navigate the forms and introduce us to the people he met during his five trips to the bureau (which, again, is all the way on the other side of town), who offered us – the only foreigners in the building – a bit of preferential treatment. When officials dragged their feet on allowing us to take the exam because it was getting a little close to the cutoff for the last test of the day, his guangxi lubed the wheels for us and got us in so we wouldn't have to make yet another long trip all the way across town just to take an exam.

After a short wait, we were able to take an English exam. From a bank of 1315 possible questions, the computer-based exam randomly selects 100. You have 45 minutes to take the exam. A passing grade is 90%.

As I reached the end of my first exam with 15 minutes to spare, I hurriedly looked back at each of my answers and decided I was certain about the answers on about 70, relatively certain on 10 and had narrowed it down to a 50-50 shot on the remaining 20 questions. I waited with my hand on the “submit” button for a few minutes before deciding there was no more second guessing.

The screen popped up. 89. Deflated, I could barely walk out of the room. My friend, who went through the whole process with me was celebrating. He'd scored 92.

Typically, after you pass your exam, you go to a cashier, pay a 10 RMB fee, then head over to the person who processed your paperwork when you first arrived at the bureau and 15-20 minutes later you walk out of the office with your driver's license. Unfortunately our Singaporean friend's guangxi wasn't quite strong enough to overcome a computer problem, which popped up as he went to his fee. So he had to come back the next day.

I crammed for a few more hours that night, finding the correct answers to a few questions I'd answered incorrectly, then went back with him.

This meant a long taxi ride across town, but I figured it'd be worth it if I was able to pass while the questions were fresh in my mind and share the cab ride with my friend.

I hit a new problem in my second trip to the bureau: they got me in too fast. While scores of Chinese people waited (it was a busy Friday) to take their exams, a friendly guard recognized me as the foreigner who failed by one point the day before and rushed me in. (I learned a new phrase to describe my anguish: 差一分 - chā yī fēn, witch means "short one point”). But in the rush to set up my exam, they forgot one thing: The foreigner needed to take the English version of the exam. I sat down, pushed the start button and saw a screen filled with mostly unfamiliar Chinese characters. I got the attention of the woman monitoring the room and explained my problem.

They rapidly grabbed my paperwork and spent the next 20 minutes trying to hunt for a translator. Our Singaporean friend had mentioned that he wound up taking the Chinese version of the test with the aid of a translator, who only translated two possible answers for each multiple-choice question, which greatly aided his ability to pass it, eliminating half of the answers. For some reason, they figured this might be easier than setting up another exam. But they couldn't find the translator. Finally, someone came back with some new paperwork and motioned me back into the testing room and sat me down. The test was already running. Three minutes had already ticked off the clock and one true/false question had been answered for me, but it was in English, so I breathed a sigh of relief and dove in. Only about 20-30 questions were repeats from the day before, but thankfully I was able to correct a couple of mistakes I'd made on the first exam. Again, I tallied up the questions I was certain I had right and those that were more questionable. Since there were again about 20 “iffy” questions, I held my breath as I hit the submit button.

Again, I walked out of the room looking at the floor. 89. Again. 差一分. I just laughed. “Can I take it again today?” I asked, remembering that our friend mentioned people taking it multiple times in the same day. “It's too late. Come back next week.” Arrghg. Next week? Naturally, it was a Friday and the office isn't open during the weekend.

So I came back. Again. The next Tuesday. After paying the 63 RMB fee for the exam, I sat down in the waiting room, where I ran into a former tutor who was also taking his written exam. Again, they started off by giving me the Chinese exam (though I made a point of asking for the English one), but I caught the mistake before hitting the start button, so it was easier for them to fix this time around. I hurried through. Again, only 20-30 questions were repeats from earlier exams. There was still a bit of guessing here and there, but when I reached the end, I felt relatively confident. I felt like only 11 questions were in the “iffy” category this time. Odds were that I'd guessed right on some of them. So I hit the “submit” button and pumped my fist when a “94” popped onto the screen.

I then went about the task of trying to sign my newly transliterated eight-character Chinese name – which I'd never written before – in a space designed for typical two and three-character names, so they could issue my license. The former tutor was surprised that I didn't have to complete additional steps like he did. He kept asking me, “Are you sure you can get it today?” I went back to the same place my friend had brought his paperwork and paid his fee, but hit a roadblock because the tutor didn't let me just follow in my friend's footsteps. He asked questions. An officer insisted that I still had more tests to take, but that if I went and talked to the supervisor, he'd sort things out. So we talked to the supervisor, who told me what I already knew: go, pay the 10 RMB for them to issue the actual license, then come back to the counter next to his with the receipt. When we did, the woman at the counter momentarily asked if I could come back the next day to pick up the newly printed driver's license, but the supervisor heard her and overruled her. “It will just take a few minutes for us to print it.” I breathed a sigh of relief sat down. Twenty minutes later, he handed me the license and I headed for home. Beats having to wait a month for it to come in the mail. Next step: finding a place to rent a car.

Here's my brand new driver's license (with a few bits of important info edited)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Chinese Driving Test (part one)

By Kevin

From nit-picky traffic laws and hard-to-discern hand signals to knowing the details of how a car's engine works and figuring out what to do in just about any imaginable emergency situations, getting your driver's license in China requires knowledge of a little bit of everything.

Consider this question from the bank of more than 1300 questions a Chinese driver needs to memorize – or guess correctly about – in order to get a driver’s license. A score of 90 out of 100 is necessary to pass. Thankfully foreigners can take the exam in English, however the translations aren't always clear.
    True or False? When the driver senses he will inevitably be thrown out of the vehicle, he should violently straighten both his legs to increase the force of being thrown out and jump out of the vehicle. 
Answer: True.
I'm a bit curious why translators used the word “when” in this one. Wouldn't “if” have worked just as well to explain the potential situation? Even worse, now I wonder what constitutes knowing that you'll “inevitably be thrown from the vehicle?” I missed that driver's training lesson back in California, but apparently it could come in handy.

Apparently, if – or I should say “when?” – you roll your car, it's often not a matter of if you should jump out, but how you'll do it:
    When a vehicle overturns slowly and jumping out of the vehicle is possible, the driver should jump ______.
A. In the driving direction
B. In the overturning direction
C. In the opposite direction of the overturn
D. To the overturning side
    Answer: C
In other situations, jumping clearly is not the way to go:
    The wrong measure when a vehicle suddenly overturns sideways is to _______.
A. Tightly hold the steering wheel with both hands
B. Hook the pedals with both feet
C. Press his back against the seat
D. Open the door and jump
     Answer: D
So now I'm not sure what to do if my car rolls. If it rolls sideways, apparently I shouldn't open the door and jump, but if it “overturns slowly” (end over end perhaps?), I should jump the opposite direction of the overturn. Strange.
    True or False? When a side collision occurs to the side of the driver’s seat, the driver should manage to jump out of the vehicle.
    Answer: False.
I suppose it makes sense that you wouldn't want to jump out so the incoming car hits you directly rather than letting the car absorb the blow, but is there anyone in their right mind who would actually consider jumping out in this situation?

I think I'll be in trouble if the following scenario occurs: 

    When a vehicle rolls continuously to a deep ditch, the driver should swiftly hide his body to the lower space in front of his seat, hold ______ to stabilize his body so that his body will not roll and get hurt.
A. The pedal
B. The steering column
C. The steering wheel
D. The gear lever
Answer: B.
Since around age 10, I don't think I've even sat in a car in which I could fit into the space in front of the passenger seat, let alone been able to crawl down into the space under the steering wheel in an American car. Just sitting in the front passenger seat of a Chinese car without my knees rubbing against the dashboard is often tricky enough.

Here's another:
     After a vehicle falls into water, the wrong method for the driver to rescue himself is to ________.
A. Close the window to prevent water from flowing into the vehicle
B. Immediately use hand to open the door
C. Let the water to fill up the driver’s cab so that the water pressure both inside and outside is equal
D. Use a large plastic bag to cover the head and tight the neck closely   
Answer: B
Apparently it won't work, but I'd probably make the mistake of taking a moment to try to open the door with my hand before putting a plastic bag over my head to make an air pocket. I guess if there are kids in the car, you'll also have to tell them to close their eyes so they don't think you're going back on all those restrictions against playing with plastic bags.

    True or False? Before the driver escapes from a fire disaster, he should turn off the ignition switch, cut off the power switch and the blind, and manage to turn off the fuel tank switch.
 Answer: True.
Sounds good, but where exactly is the fuel tank switch and what is “the blind?”
Additionally, the exam requires that you know about what every part of the engine does, even though the average Chinese person probably has no desire to do any mechanical repairs of their own.
    The pressure indicated by the engine oil pressure meter represents the engine oil pressure of the __________ of the engine.

A. Main oil route
B. Crankshaft box
C. Fuel inlet pipe of the engine oil pump
D. Engine oil pump   
Answer: A.
Not sure if I would have guessed correctly on that one, but does it really affect my ability to drive in any way whatsoever? If the oil light comes on, I know it's a serious enough problem that I shouldn't be the one trying to fix it.

How about this one?
    The accelerator pedal designed to control ____ of the engine or oil pump plunger is used to control the rotation speed of the engine.
A. The accelerator
B. The air throttle
C. The clutch
D. The fuel injector
Answer: B.
I guess I need to learn more about what everything in the engine does exactly if I want to drive. I guess when you hit the gas, you don't actually control “the gas” at all.

Then, there are questions that are just difficult to decipher:
    True or False? When a bus encounters an avoidable walking across the expressway, the driver should apply emergency braking or hit the guardrail to stop.
 Answer: False
Not exactly sure what an “avoidable” is or why the average driver needs to know what a bus driver would do in this situation, but it's clear from the answer that you want to avoid it by some means other than emergency braking or crashing into the guardrail.

Since livestock are a bigger part of everyday life for many even in Chinese cities than in the States, I suppose this question is relevant:
    When encountering a flock of sheep crossing a road, the driver should _______.
A. Honk continuously to drive away the flock
B. Speed up and bypass the flock
C. Drive slowly and use the vehicle to scare away the flock
D. Reduce speed and go slowly, or stop to yield when necessary
Answer: D
Additionally, every licensed driver must be an expert in knowing how to apply emergency first-aid. I suppose one of the reasons for this is that the likelihood of an ambulance responding quickly seems pretty low, so you may need to take matters into your own hands.

    The wrong measure to rescue a person sustaining burns all over his body is to _________.
    A. Use sandy soil to cover    B. Swiftly put out the flames of his clothes    C. Spray cool water to his body    D. Take off his burning clothes
    Answer: A.
I'm not sure I would have even considered throwing sand on someone who was burning. I guess stop, drop and roll isn't an option here.

    The article that cannot be used to stop bleeding by dressing is _________.
A. Bondage
B. Sling
C. Tourniquet
D. Hemp rope   
 Answer: D
I'm guessing they mean “bandage” with A. I'll leave it at that.
    When there many wounded persons, those who should be sent to hospital last are the persons _______.
A. Suffering cervical vertebra damage
B. Suffering massive hemorrhage
C. Suffering breathing difficulty
D. Whose intestines and veins are exposed    
Answer: A
I guess it's good to think about these things in advance. If you need to prioritize, spinal damage can wait longer than hemorrhage, shortness of breath and exposed intestines clearly can't. However, if you were involved in this accident, I'm not sure exactly how you're going to be well enough to help the others.

Then there are questions about signage. Generally, this seems like a good idea, but one reason I failed my exam the first time because I wasn't quite sure how to answer the following two questions:

    The sign in the picture is ______.
        A. A warning sign
        B. A prohibitive sign
        C. An indicative sign
        D. A directional sign
 Answer: C
Does it really matter what type of sign it is if I know what it means?

Then there are a few answers that just appear to be incorrect. Consider the answers to the next two questions. Clearly the answers can't both be correct, unless the key is that the first question is missing the word “within.”


True or False? The sign in the picture is designed to indicate the section 200m ahead specified in the main sign. 
    Answer: False

    True or False? The sign in the picture is designed to indicate the section within 100m on the left side specified in the main sign. 
    Answer: True
Anyone who has spent any time in China notices that at intersections, people often turn left in front of oncoming cars. Vehicles turning left generally don't have the right-of-way, but they drive like they do.
    At an intersection that has no directional traffic lights, _________________.
A. The motorized vehicle that will turn should yield to the vehicle that will go straight
B. The motorized vehicle that will go straight should yield to the vehicle that will turn
C. The motorized vehicle in the opposite direction that will turn left should yield to the vehicle that will turn right
D. The vehicles should bypass from the left or right side and go through the intersection    
Answer: A
I'm not sure if the answer to the following question is correct or not. I would have gone with answer B, but maybe somehow intersections without traffic lights get special treatment.
    When the motorized vehicles go through an intersection that has neither traffic lights nor traffic police to direct traffic, the vehicles coming in the opposite directions ___________.
A. The vehicle that goes straight should yield to the vehicle that turns left
B. The vehicle that turns left should yield to the vehicle that goes straight
C. The vehicle that turns right should yield to the vehicle that turns left
D. The vehicles may go through as they wish
Answer: C
And finally, there are questions involving the hand-signals of traffic cops, who are almost always attractive young women.

    The hand signal of the traffic police in the picture is ________.
A. A signal for waiting to turn left
B. A signal for turning left
C. An auxiliary signal for turning left sharply
D. A signal for turning left sharply
Answer: A

    The hand signal of the traffic police in the picture is ______.
A. A signal for pulling over
B. A signal for slowing down
C. An auxiliary signal for stopping
D. A signal for turning right
Answer: D
Most of the differences in hand signals seem to be small. It seems that the direction in which the officer is looking is just as important as the hand signals she is making.

As you can see, the Chinese driving test is a bit on the tricky side. It follows the general Chinese testing method of trying to trick the test-taker with nit-picky questions that often aren't particularly important. Then again, with the number of Chinese people in a rush to get behind the wheel, perhaps making the test difficult isn't a bad thing.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Dear Mom Friends

I wrote this as a "guest post" on my friend and college roommate Allison's blog.  She (married with no children) wrote a letter to her mom friends that got such a big response she decided to start a series of guest posts from different perspectives.  You can check out her letter, the other guest posts (more to come), and her other thought-provoking posts on her blog.

Dear mom friends,

The early days after my daughter was born were a fog of nursing, diapers, quick snatches of sleep, more nursing, that first delightful smile, and trying figure out why this cute little baby just wouldn't sleep! Mothering was so constant, so consuming, that at first I felt no sense of self outside of being a mother. It was hard to spend fifteen minutes talking to my husband, emailing a friend, or pursuing a hobby when what I wanted more than anything in the world was just fifteen minutes more sleep. I think this stage of “tunnel vision” is normal and probably even necessary for a period of time. Becoming a parent is a monumental life shift, babies are perplexing, and it takes some time to adjust.

The problem is that it was hard to get out of that all-consuming mindset and remember I was also a wife, a friend, and a person.  I knew parenting would take a lot of time, but I was unprepared for how mentally and emotionally consuming parenting would be.  Even when I did have time away from my daughter, time to do my own thing, I couldn't remember what my own thing was! What were my hobbies again?  What did I think about before I thought about parenting all the time? What were my dreams and passions...other than sleep!  It was still in there, but it was hard to dig out.

I've realized that mothering is (hopefully) less of a loss of identity and more an identity shift. Who I am and what I care about most have changed since having a baby.  My identity is always going to be tied into parenthood; it's a huge part of who I am now. I just need to remember it's not the only part.  Some of my interests have also changed.  For example, I am genuinely interested in childbirth and all the related issues. It's completely fascinating.   But I also still have some of the same pre-child interests and passions, like China (where I live), teaching, writing, and all things related to women.

Sometimes I need a chance to separate myself enough from mothering to keep those passions alive, by teaching a class or writing a blog. Sometimes I can share those interests with my daughter, like listening to country music together. :) And sometimes my daughter introduces me to new hobbies, like tickling and laughing and spinning around until we fall over. The answer is not to de-emphasize my role as a mother but rather to see how it complements, changes, and enhances who I already am.

I am happy as a mother. Very happy. Not every-single-moment kind of happy, but deeply, richly happy. Even in the midst of those overwhelming early days, I was surprised to find how happy I was. I love laughing and dancing and playing with my daughter. I am so excited to see her learn new things every day. When she is happy, I feel happy too (except maybe at 5am). I love mothering. It's been difficult, and there are times when I've felt like I lost my identity. But actually, I think I've just become even more of who I already was!

So mom friend: What are your interests and passions?  Have they changed since you have become a mother?   How do you preserve your sense of personhood in daily life?
The Mother of a One Year Old

Sunday, April 22, 2012


There are a lot of times in the midst of studying Chinese when it's hard to feel like we're making a lot of progress. Lately it seems like lots of our classes have been filled with confusing grammar rules and the fifth word that means almost exactly the same thing as the other four, except for one small contextual nuance that can't fully be explained. And the measure words – oh man, does Chinese have some measure words.

For about every fourth new vocabulary word, we learn a new measure words. English has different measure words too: a pair of pants, a cup of coffee, a slice of bread. But it's amazing how many times we can just say “a” or “the” or don't even have to use a measure word at all. Thank you, English. A few examples of Chinese measure words:

pian – for things that are flat, thin pieces (a pill, a large grassy area)
zhang – a measure word for flat objects (a table, a bed, a piece of paper)
zhi – for long, thin, inflexible objects (a pen); for troops; for songs; for wattage; and for the size or quality of yarn.
gen – for long, thin objects (a banana, a match, a piece of string)

There are different measure words for a pair of eyes and a pair of glasses, a letter, a book, a newspaper, a present, a tv, a road, a mountain, a piece of clothing, a class get the idea. Usually to introduce how these myriad measure words are used, our book says something useful like, "a measure word."

As always, we feel the difficulty of both of Kevin and I trying to learn Chinese while also being parents. It's hard not to compare to someone who is able to spend 20 hours a week in class, meet with a tutor every day, and (novel thought) study every day too! I'm only in class 10 hours a week, meeting with a tutor 4-5 hours a week, and my study time is more often than not 2-5 snatches in between Juliana's suddenly urgent need for attention. She's just like a cat – as soon as she can sense I'm trying to focus, she does her best to put herself directly between me and my book. Sometimes I wonder if I'm really learning that much at all.

So it's helpful to look back every so often and be able to see progress! I sometimes forget how very, very little we knew starting off, even after 5 years living in China. I used to be able to answer a few, very basic questions before starting to flounder. Now I can carry on conversations for half an hour or an hour. Maybe not deep, eloquent conversations, but communicative ones all the same. Last week I called my Chinese friend from Yangzhou, and she was thrilled that we could talk in Chinese and I could understand her. Last weekend we spent the morning at the home of a random family Kevin and Juliana had met outside and only used a few words of English.
Juliana and her new little Chinese friend find words, Chinese or English, rather unnecessary.

I looked back at the first lesson in our reading book where we were reading this:
Reading Text: Lesson 1

Compared to last week when we read this:
Reading Text: Lesson 21

I could not write any Chinese before this year, and my writing is still not great. I don't practice it too much except in class and writing homework because it's probably the area I'll use least in the future. Even so, I can write (and even remember how to write) a whole lot more characters than before!
Notes from class

It's exciting to remember we are making progress.  Yay for us!

Friday, April 20, 2012

A Truly Tiny House

Juliana with Li Jie's daughter (in red).  The tiny house-room is behind them.

Every day we park our bikes with more than a hundred others inside the bike shed just outside our apartment building.  Inside the low, narrow building, the bikes are protected from ever present thieves by the lady who watches over the bike shed. Li Jie, the bike lady, lives in a tiny room at the front of the shed. It is about the size of a large walk-in closet, smaller than a king-sized bed. A smaller-than-twin bed takes up one half of the room, which also holds a small table/desk and a computer screen (with wires threaded to the console outside). The room has a door and one small window looking into the shed.

When needed, Li Jie walks across the small road to the public toilet. She washes her face and probably her hair at the small wash basin just outside her house-room. She squats in front of the bike shed to wash clothes in a small plastic bucket. What I'm not actually sure is where she cooks. Usually when people live in the tiny room behind their shop, as is relatively common, they pull out a rice cooker and a burner or lump of coal to make their meal, but I've never seen these things around her room. Perhaps the small apartment-turned-shop next door, which sells odds-and-ends and apparently also a small variety of food, provides it.

Li Jie has a daughter and a husband. At least, I think there's just one daughter. It's hard to keep track because there are about three different elementary aged girls I regularly see coming in and out of the room. The husband stops by to visit sometimes, but he isn't around too often, so they must have some other place they also call home. But the bike lady – she is always at the bike shed. Eight o'clock in the morning, nine o'clock at night, middle of the day, the weekend, the holiday...she is always there, and usually her daughter, and perhaps one or two other young friends, are there too. They play outside the bike shed or crowd around the tiny table working on homework or watching something on the computer.

Our apartment has two bedrooms, an office, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. It is 871 square feet. It has never looked so big.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Heels over the edge

Ningxia man stands on the corner of a building for an hour, then gets rescued as he attempts to jump.
By Kevin
He stood with his heels hanging over the edge of the roof for more than an hour before jumping.

The young man, presumably a Ningxia University student, had sat down on the corner of the rooftop across from ours. He appeared to be trying to decide whether or not his grief was enough to propel him off of the five-story building. As rescue worker approached from one side, he became agitated and pushed off of the corner of the building. The rooftop rescue worker sprang to action and grabbed his arm a split second before he could complete his fall.

Heels hang over the corner of the five-story building.
A crowd of hundreds of teachers, students and children, which had gathered below, shrieked and ran towards the edge of the building. When they saw that the man had been hoisted back onto the roof, many cheered. The man had been saved.

It was the first time I'd witnessed a suicide attempt. I pray that it is my last, but recent statistics aren't very promising.

On average, someone in China attempts suicide every two minutes, according to China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, China's suicide rate is 22.23 people out of every 100,000, giving China one of the highest per capita rates of suicide in the world. It's also the biggest killer of people ages 15-34. In this nation of 1.3 billion people, about 2 million attempt suicide every year and 287,000 people kill themselves. Pressure to provide for aging parents, poor job prospects, broken relationships, failure and loss of face often lead people to despair.

We went outside a little before 5 p.m. We were planning to take advantage of the beautiful afternoon and bike over to buy her some new shoes in a nearby marketplace before grabbing some dinner. The plan changed when we saw a crowd gathered outside our building, gazing up at a man standing on the edge of the rooftop.

The shoes could wait. We quickly alerted our friends and teachers who live on campus and asked them to join us in prayer.

Police had just begun trying to clear the area. The first firetruck arrived a few minutes later, but the firefighters did little more than mull  about near the foot of the building.Twenty  minutes later, a firetruck carrying a giant inflatable cushion arrived. We held our breath during the 10 minutes it took them to set it up, praying that he wouldn't feel rushed to jump right away. As the air bag inflated, he moved along the edge of the roof to a place where he could avoid it if he jumped. He turned and stared out at the crowd. His hunched shoulders carrying the look of defeat.
Looking down from the top of a five-story apartment building

We still couldn't see any rescue workers on the roof, but he turned and looked like he was talking to somebody. The gates were locked. Nobody was going to be allowed on or off this area of campus. The crowd gathered. Children continued playing. Students smiled and giggled nervously. Elderly people wondered what had sent him to this point of despair. For the first time I spotted a few rescue workers on the roof, trying to persuade him to come down.

About 45 minutes after we arrived, he sat down on the edge. It seemed like a good sign. Better than standing on the corner with his feet over the edge, at least. Finally 50 minutes after our arrival, an ambulance from Ningxia People's Hospital arrived. Apparently rescuers wanted to bring him to the best hospital hospital halfway across town if he survived the fall, rather than the one just down the street (which may or may not have ambulances of its own).

A crowd gathers to see if the man jumps from the rooftop.
Just after the rescuer caught him, we met a student who told us that just last week, another Ning da student jumped off a building on another campus. She survived, but is completely paralyzed. I imagined his fate might have been the same had he completed his jump. Since it was at the corner of the building, he may have missed the landing pad.

After he was rescued, I couldn't help thinking about what a difficult road the man faces now. Not only will he have to deal with the consequences of dealing with his pain and the fact that he ultimately jumped, but now he'll face the likelihood that people will shun him and his family because of the huge loss of face that comes with such a public spectacle. 

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Loss of face (and our Ayi)

By Kevin

As I pulled on my jacket and prepared to head out for our weekly team meeting, Juliana clung to my leg and cried, using babgyhua to plead for me to stay with her. Ayi's face crinkled and she joined the chorus, replacing babyspeak with rapid-fire Chinese, which – with the right combination of unfamiliar vocabulary – often manages to carry nearly the same meaning from my ears to my brain. What I could understand was that she too wanted me to stay behind. "As long as you are here, AnAn is OK," I understood. "When you leave, she just cries.”

I encouraged her to bring Juliana outside and Ayi responded with more rapid-fire Chinese. This time I understood even less, so Ayi began to pantomime what we already knew had happened the day before: she took Juliana outside, and even though she was constantly hovering right behind our little adventurer, Juliana managed to trip over a crack in the sidewalk and cut her bottom lip. This, on the same day that the other little girl Ayi watches also sustained a minor injury.

I tried to reassure Ayi that it is OK, we thought she was doing a good job taking care of Juliana. But she insisted that she wouldn't be able to take her this day unless I stayed in the apartment too, which wasn't going to happen, because our meeting was about to start. I suggested bringing Juliana outside, since our daughter loves running around outside. In fact, everyday, she'll walk over to the door and say, “side” – meaning “take me outside.” But Ayi was hesitant. I dressed Juliana and brought her downstairs, thinking that perhaps she would be ok with letting me go now that she was outside.

Juliana was OK with the idea, but Ayi was too afraid Juliana would fall and hurt herself again, so I walked over to the “bike shed,” where we and a couple hundred other residents park their bikes. As I put Juliana into the bike seat, Ayi asked if she should go home. I tried to find a polite way to say it, but my words spilled out quickly: “I guess so. If you can't watch her, then you can go home.”

The blood drained from her face. I'd just insulted her. She was losing face. Even worse, there was a man from the neighborhood looking on. It was a public shaming. I needed to show my displeasure with her reluctance to do her job, but I'd botched it. Trying to regain a little bit of composure, I said I'd see her tomorrow. She agreed and I biked off to our meeting, worried that we may have just lost our babysitter less than three weeks into our “trial period.”

My suspicions grew when she called our teammate, and then me, the next morning and said that she had some sort of family matter so she'd miss the next two days of work, but she'd be back on Monday.

We probably should have began our search for a replacement then, but we were optimistic that some important family matter had just come up and the loss of face wasn't irreparable. Unfortunately, our Chinese isn't good enough to catch the spoken subtleties or the nonverbal cues that she was trying to express her dissatisfaction with the job. So we hoped and prayed for the best.

The next Monday, she came as usual. She watched Juliana and seemed to do fine with her. Then, Tuesday came along. She began telling me how tired and worried she is and how much Juliana cries when she watches her. I assured her that we thought Juliana liked her. “I can hear from the office, when you play with her, she is happy.” She insisted that Juliana wasn't as comfortable with her as with the past Ayi. I told her that we thought that it was just a matter of time. It also took her a couple weeks before she excitedly jumped into the old Ayi's arms everytime she walked through the door. “Maybe you can bring (your old) Ayi back,” she suggested. “She has a new job now,” I reminded her in garbled Chinese. “Juliana has just reached the point where she doesn't cry anymore when I leave. Things will get better.”

Then she dropped the bomb, something along the lines of: “I don't think I can watch Anan anymore.” Ruth was meeting with her tutor, so I opened our office room and asked if her tutor could help us translate because I wanted to make sure understood. “I'm pretty sure that she's quitting,” I said. I was on the right track. We repeated the same lines and Ruth's tutor managed to convince Ayi to stick around. For a moment, we thought crisis had been averted.

The next day she came, watched Juliana and did great with her. Our hopes continued to rise. When I left to go study, Juliana didn't cry or cling to me. She laughed and played and had a great time. When I came to pick her up afterward, Ayi said, with a bit of surprise, “She didn't cry. She was happy.” The same thing happened again the next day. We figured things were looking up. In fact, the teammate whose kids she watches each morning and I were discussing how we should pay her, since tomorrow would be her fourth week working for us, and we were splitting her services. Perhaps we should give her a raise?

Then Thursday came. With it came our teammate's news: “Ayi quit today. We managed to convince her to work one more day.” A couple hours later, she came to our house one last time to clean.

Our previous Ayi, who attends a fellowship with the one quitting happened to stop by in the middle of her last day. The old Ayi loves Juliana and, if she had more time, would probably love to continue watching her. In fact, she stops by every few weeks just to say hi and play with Juliana. She too spent some time trying to convince her to stick around because it'll get better, but it was to no avail. Eventually, she officially broke the news to us that we had heard earlier in the day. 

Unfortunately, when your house-helper quits in China (at least here), you can't just thumb through the yellow pages or hop online and find a handy service that will bring in another (not that we know how you'd find someone in the States either--we'd never be able to afford someone there). It's all about who you know. Thankfully we know a lot of foreigners in this city who have kids, so we immediately began throwing out feelers. Our first candidate was interested, but she lives outside of the city and didn't want to work at times that would work for us. A second candidate just didn't seem very interested in the job when our teammate met with her. The third was promising, so he brought her by with Ruth and I were out shopping. Ruth liked her, so tomorrow Ayi number three starts. We're hoping she'll be able to keep up with our little runner.

Tomb Sweeping Day

We have been happy to have a three day holiday this week.  The reason?  Tomb-sweeping day.  I've been sick the whole holiday and haven't been outside, but before the holiday I already saw tables set up on the sidewalks selling paper money and other items to burn for your ancestors to use in the afterlife.  A woman we know who has lived in China for decades wrote about this holiday:

"Wednesday (April 4) is Qing Ming Jie, or Grave Sweeping Festival in China.  It's sort of like Memorial Day in the US, but with more religious overtones.  On this day, Chinese are supposed to tend to the graves of the ancestors.  This is done out of much more than respect, but as a way of actually caring for and looking after the departed ancestors. "

Check out the rest of her post about "Hell Money."  (If you are interested in China, her blog is full of interesting stories and insights).  She also links to a fascinating Economist article about "Ghost brides."  It's the first I've heard of this bizarre tradition, probably because it is mostly practiced in Northern rural areas.  So enjoy your reading and...happy holidays??

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Juliana's newest word: "Med-cine!"

China is notorious for its overuse of antibiotics. There still doesn't seem to be a real awareness that viruses (say, a cold) cannot be cured by a dose of antibiotics, IV preferred. Some doctors say they give antibiotics because the patient will not feel they have received good treatment unless they are given some medicine. Even if the doctor doesn't prescribe antibiotics, it's really no problem; you can buy them at any pharamacy, no prescription needed.

This often works in our favor, since we can just get the medicines we need even when the doctor prescribes something harmful or not useful. It also works in our favor because often doctors don't prescribe enough antibiotics. For example, I realized today that the doctor only gave Juliana three days worth of the antibiotics she's supposed to take. I emailed International SOS (our very handy medical referral team) to ask if she should take more, and they said the typical course of antibiotics for bronchitis is 5-6 days.

So today Kevin had to go out and buy some more medicine. Juliana will be happy; she likes taking medicine. In fact she likes it so much (first the cough syrup and now the antibiotic) that she learned to say medicine. She points up to the table where it is stored and says, “Med-cine? Med-cine?” Tonight she was so excited about it that Kevin gave her a little extra water in her dropper so she could pretend it was medicine. We're going to have to keep an eye on this one.