Shanghai Mornings

Early mornings are where it’s at here in Shanghai, a good thing if you are an international traveller who never knows when you might wake up. This time of year, it is also cool in the early morning, at least relative to the 100 degrees in the shade that it will be by 10 a.m. But besides beating the heat and having something to do at 5 a.m. an early morning walk or run in Shanghai teaches the westerner what a communal versus an individualistic society looks like.

By way of contrast, consider early mornings in Chapel Hill. Not naturally a morning person, I’ve become one because of motherhood, time constraints, and my dog. For a while I was driving to the gym very early and now I run with my beast most days. When I head out, the streets are empty except for the street cleaning truck. It is beautiful and quiet. We will see deer, sometimes an owl, and always the beauty of the changing seasons. By the time I’ve returned home, not much has changed, perhaps a few more cars come and go, and a few dog walkers and joggers have ventured out. Not so in Shanghai. By 5 in the morning, at least an hour earlier than when I head out at home,IMG_1792 bicyclists and walkers are heading to open-air markets to buy vegetables, chicken, fish, or ducks. Folks from the countryside are unloading huge mounds of fruit. Grandparents are pushing grand children in strollers or supervising them on tricycles.
Shops are opening; people are waiting to buy steamed buns for breakfast. Women or men alike may be wasIMG_1794hing clothes in a basin on the street or hanging up laundry to dry. Any open space from a park to a parking lot becomes a gathering space where people of all ages are coming together sometimes for commerce and often in play.

IMG_1762As I keep walking I might see people line dancing to traditional Chinese music or perhaps U.S. country pop favorites, friends playing badminton, and adults of all ages practicing Tai Chi.

On other trips I’ve seen men wielding swords wearing beautiful velvet robes, women in shorts moving gracefully with fans to Chinese music on a boom box. Fathers and sons might kick around a soccer ball. And I’m never surprised but always delighted to hear men singing Puccini to greet the day. Would I ever tire of watching these scenes? I don’t think so.

Somehow all of life combines of a Chinese morning to dispel the dualities I so often live in: work or play, elders or youth, indoor or outdoor, song or dance, waste or creation, old or new.  These separations are illusions. Chinese mornings change those “ors” to “ands.” As the duality disappears, the communal emerges and I find myself grateful for the chance to learn such a lesson.IMG_1730

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So Many Chinas

There are so many Chinas; each teach different lessons. There is tourist China. It is lively and awe-inspiring and new. Yes, new. A culture that dates back 5000 years boasts many attractions that bear small signs that they have been rebuilt since 1980. Hmmmm…. On the one hand, most of these structures are rebuilt replicas of ancient sites, and, why not? The original structures were made of wood. As Peter Hessler writes in Oracle Bones, structures in China were not built to stand forever. There seems to be a recognition and a world view that material things will not last. Where my western mind feels a bit like I’m being duped when an “ancient” pagoda has an escalator in it, from a Chinese perspective this view makes little sense. A pagoda, whether or not it is this pagoda, has stood on this spot since A.D. 975. Hessler also writes that culture as architecture is a western notion. And as a mother of two boys, I can attest to how entranced they are by castles, pyramids, tombs, lighthouses, and other structures that speak to the Western impulse to create lasting monuments to persons, things, gods, or events. It follows, that as China has begun to once again share its heritage with outsiders, there is an attempt to do this in a way the westerners will understand.  I see more of this impulse on each visit. More buildings with old-style facades, more focus on pre-revolutionary culture. And, although I know how I see these attractions, I wonder how my Chinese friends see them. Is it simply a way to bring tourists and their money into China? Maybe not. Another legacy in modern China is the cultural revolution (1964- 73) during which temples were closed, Buddha’s defaced, palaces left to disintegrate, and other relics left unpreserved, all in a systematic attempt to destroy the four olds: old cultures, customs, habits, and ideas. A terrible moment when the very things that give a culture allure and flavor are purged in the name of modernization. Perhaps the shining newness of tourist China reflects a type of joy or reclamation of the “olds” that were almost lost.

On previous trips, I’ve brought small cameras – easy to carry, inconspicuous. But this time, I decided I wanted to do more visual exploration than in the past. My goal was to notice caught my eye notice and reflect on what that told me both about China and about how I perceive it.

First is the China I wish for.
Because I can immediately load my pictures onto my computer and because my computer has some limited photo editing capabilities, I found myself taking a picture that looks like this…

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…of a distant pagoda. Even when I took it, I was trying to create something different than what was there. I zoomed in as much as possible to crop out the street, the city buildings, etc. The resulting picture has the bones of what I was aiming for – something mystical, exotic, faraway, perhaps capturing what it might feel like to be an explorer catching site of an unfamiliar shape on a distant hill. But the picture is hazy – a polluted reality – that, as a consumer, I benefit from. Hmmm…uncomfortable…but, viola!

 

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A little editing and I can disguise that discomfort. Now it is magical, sublime even. (A real photographer might throw in hackneyed and boring but nevertheless…)

Let’s try another one. Here’s the view from the Great Wall as it looked through my lens.

Image(This is life without environmental activism, btw.) But look, a slightly different view, a little editing and presto change-o! National Geographic here I come. And the quiet awe that I would like to feel looking out is created literally out of thin air.

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Now there’s nothing wrong with editing pictures. It’s fun, creative, satisfying. And I’ll hang these on my wall and give them as gifts. But it also gives me pause. To what lengths do I go to to make something fit an into my vision of what it should be? Do I do this with people and situations? Recognizing that true objectivity is out the window for most of us, to what degree to I allow myself to be open to possibilities? How often do I try and make something pretty and inviting that is really something else entirely? What about people? Do I window dress them when I should believe exactly what they put before my eyes or visualize them harshly because there is something that I don’t quite understand. My visual journey is helping me think differently. I like that.

On to another China, the China of every day. This is where the real magic happens – and not because of editing. In China, grandparents are the primary caretakers for their young grandchildren. Most often, both parents are working, and the young father’s parents either live with the new family or close by. Retirement happens quite early for men and women and young couples tend to have children before they are 30. This means grandparents are physically able and completely willing to take care of the littles. One of the most delightful sites when out and about in China is the number of grandparents with their grandchildren doing daily chores, or as in this case, enjoying a boat ride at the summer palace.

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The little boy, as squeezy as he is, is made all the more appealing because he flanked by his grandfather and grandmother who are enjoying the view through his eyes. I was captivated watching them.

Here’s one taken during an evening walk in Beijing. Much of life is lived outside in China. In both the early morning and evening one can see people of all ages out doing martial arts, fishing, playing instruments, playing badminton, line dancing or perhaps having a game of chess or mahjongg. Morning and evening are the best times of day there.

There is the China that gets lost in translation.  Here’s a sign from the Forbidden City.  Our colleague who accompanied us told us it means, “Emperor doing nothing.”

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When he told me this, I started to laugh and after a moment he did too.  Because of course I was thinking, “What good is an emperor who does nothing???”  But the words actually connote something different, more like “The Emperor is trusting his subjects to make good decisions.”   How many moments in cross-cultural communication are like this.  We think we know what we’re hearing; maybe we’re too afraid of being impolite to check it out; and so we stay woefully ignorant. I was happy it struck me as funny, which meant laughter, which meant a chance to talk further and really understand.

And there are so many other scenes that I notice when I’m out of my element.  They are completely ordinary to those who live there and completely extraordinary to me.

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Thanks to my friends and colleagues in China for such a great trip.

 

Working without a Net: Mothers in Tongji Village

Note: If you are reading my blog and commenting, I’m not ignoring you. I can’t get to my blog right now. A colleague is uploading these for me.

Today was spent mostly in Tongji village with mothers who have migrated from the countryside to work in Shanghai. They’ve been working on a photovoice project and today and tonight were the discussion sessions for their photos. For those of you unfamiliar with photovoice, it is a participatory research method that asks participants to take pictures in order to answer a particular question. Then, in a group format, individuals describe their pictures and a conversation ensues. And what conversations they were. I’m still reeling from tonight’s which concluded about an hour ago. The first mother showed her first photograph: A self-portrait standing in her workplace, a hotel where she cleaned floors. Her opening words: This is where I work. I cannot read or write so this is the kind of work that I am able to do. Two or three photos later she took us to a hospital bed where her youngest son was donating bone marrow for her 14 year old son who has leukemia. They moved to Shanghai after the diagnosis because they could not get treatment in their home province. Now they face bills of 10,000 rmb per month. The younger son has returned to live with neighbors in the home province because the family must work and spend time at the hospital. And following treatment the older son will return to the home province for middle school without his parents because of the complex schooling situation for migrant children.

Each mother had her own story and each was struggling and working hard in different ways. One cooks three meals a day for ten people in a kitchen the size of a closet. But the most devastating stories concerned health care. What I am learning as I continue to work in China is that life here brings many of the policy questions we struggle with in the U.S. into very sharp relief. Should people have access to health care that doesn’t devastate them financially? It really is a yes or no question. Fed up with the media? Try living without an independent press and see if your opinion changes. Are you sure you want the government intimately involved in your family planning decisions?

There were other heart-stopping moments during the evening. Mothers who reached out to one another saying, “Call on me when you need help…I’ve been too harsh with my children and felt bad too. You are not alone…We need each other. We should have meetings like this more often.” And, my Chinese colleagues…by the end of the morning meeting there were plans to build a playground because the mothers talked about there being no safe place for children to play in the village. These social workers already built a library, started a tutoring/study hall program, in addition to doing individual work with residents. By the end of tonight’s meeting, there were plans to coordinate with the children’s hospital where the above mentioned boy was receiving treatment and to start a support group for moms. Such suffering and compassion all together seems to have produced an explosion of ideas an intervention points and a group of 17 moms willing to be part of making a difference in their community.

A Morning with Chinese Students

This morning I had the good fortune to spend time with Chinese MSW students. A professor here invited me to talk with his class. I did a formal presentation but, as is often the case here, I had to go a bit off message because there are so many questions about differences between the U.S. and China.

The hardest question, of course, concerned child protection. In China at the moment child protection systems only serve children who are abandoned. There is no clear definition of maltreatment and no system to deal with it, even if there was. Students here apparently hear about situations in which Asians from many countries move to western countries and run afoul of child welfare authorities because of child-rearing choices that are considered maltreatment in the host country are ostensibly acceptable ways of discipline in the home countries. The students asked how social workers in the U.S. negotiate these divergent views. This is a question that I dread. I was first asked something similar when I was a new professor. An adult MSW student from another country, not an Asian country, stated, in the course of a class discussion that as a young child she had stolen something and had had her hand burned on the stove as punishment. She stated emphatically that this was not abuse but a common cultural practice and that she maintained a close relationship with the family member that burned her. As a new teacher, this was a moment of horror. In addition to terrible image of a child being deliberately burned, there was the implicit challenge in the statement from the student to which I needed to respond. Breathe, feel, think, speak. Another student in the class expressed deep sympathy for what had happened to her, giving me the space to think how to approach her statement. What might the consequences of a burn to the hand be – infection, nerve damage, loss of mobility? How would someone know whether they had burned too much or too little? How angry would a caregiver have to be to do that? Does true discipline come out of anger? If discipline is teaching, what was this practice teaching? Is that what every parent in that country did or were there some families that would have chosen some other method to teach their child not to steal? My husband, the lawyer, does not find all of this as complicated. You live in a particular country, you abide by its rules. But in the social work role, it is complicated. We spend a lot of time thinking and talking about cultural competence but what does that mean in the child welfare context? Is the same behavior maltreatment if you are American and a cultural difference if you’re not? And if I’m a social worker tasked with intervening, how do I demonstrate respect for cultural difference even as I say that particular behaviors cannot stand? There are no easy answers accept the simple ones: breathe and take time to listen; feel and find compassion, it really is so hard to be a parent; think, use your education; then speak honestly and say what needs to be said.

Hooray for Hessler!

Wow.  Peter Hessler, one of my all time favorite authors, has won a McArthur genius award.  Every year I get really excited when these awards are announced.  I love the idea that a person could be doing his or her work, perhaps getting lots of recognition, perhaps not, and out of the blue someone calls and says, “We love what you’re doing.  Here’s some money to keep doing it.”  And each year, I hear about some amazing musician or poet or scientist whose work I don’t know.  But I do know about Peter Hessler.

Many of you know that in recent years I’ve been learning and working in China.  That started after I received tenure several years ago.  I’ve since learned that a “post-tenure slump” is common in academia and that it represents a real threat to productivity.  Some people seem to fight their way through it and all the interesting things that are supposed to come with tenure proceed – work going in new directions, great teaching, etc.  However, for some the result is stagnation – not knowing where to go when the pressure cooker of being an assistant professor without tenure disappears.  But, when I received tenure, I did not realize that this was a “normal” phenomenon.  Although I kept working hard, on some level my heart was not in it and that was not a feeling I could see living with for very long.  So I made a decision to start walking through whatever doors happened to open to me that year.  And one of doors that opened was China.  But I walked through it with great trepidation.  We were supposed to be teaching students in the course of a summer abroad experience.  How could I possibly presume to teach about some place that I truly knew nothing about?  I racked my brain to think what I learned in high school world history or the foreign policy class I took in college – nothing had been retained!  So I started from scratch four months before we left and thankfully came upon Peter Hessler.  River Town, Oracle Bones, and most recently, Country Driving.  I was reading then, and have since read, many books about China – many of which I’ve really liked and from which I’ve learned much.  But only Peter Hessler’s work taught me how to teach American students in China.  Because his writing is about a place and about himself and how in learning about a place and it’s people, he learns about his own “place” and his own personhood.

When he wrote his first book, River Town, the Three Gorges Dam was not yet constructed.  All over the world, there was controversy about the dam – its environmental impact, the consequences for those who would have to move because their homes would be flooded, and Hessler clearly loves the natural world.  His concerns mirrored everyone else’s.  Yet, while living on the Yangtze his view of the issue enlarged.  Here’s an excerpt:

...There were days I stood on my balcony and felt a touch of sadness as I looked at the Yangtze because I knew its days as a rushing river were numbered.   But there were many other days when the smog was so thick that I couldn’t see the river at all.

I also gained a new perspective on this issue during the winter, when there were periodic power cuts to conserve electricity.  My apartment had only electric heating, and sometimes these blackouts lasted for hours–long, cold hours, the dark apartment growing steadily more uncomfortable until my breath was white in the candlelight.  I found that during these periods I didn’t think too much about whether Fuling’s new dike would hold, or if the immigrants would be well taken care of, or whether the White Crane Ridge would be adequately protected.  What I thought about was getting warm.  Cold was like hunger; it had a way of simplifying everything. [pg. 115]

Notice that I said that his view enlarged – not changed.  He did not give up his concern for historic preservation, the environment, or the well-being of residents.  He added to his concerns.  Many people in China at that time did not have access to something we in the U.S. do: as much electricity as we are willing to pay for whenever we want it.  What Hessler taught so beautifully through his own journey was, that if there were to be alternatives to the Three Gorges Dam, they would have to address all of these concerns not just one group or another’s particular issue.  And the transferability of that lesson to so many of the problems that our social work students must address is obvious.  Just yesterday, I was using another amazing book in my class on social work in health care.  The book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, is an exploration of a clash between the culture of Western Medicine and a Hmong community that results in misunderstanding and unnecessary suffering. In this situation, as in so many, choosing one side’s view of a situation without incorporating the view of the  other creates only winners and losers – not solutions.

So, if you haven’t read Peter Hessler, read him.  He writes about China but, at the core, he writes about compassion for ourselves and others as we navigate waters we have yet to chart.  And congratulations to him.  I’m so glad he can keep doing what he does so well.

 

“Teach thy tongue to say I do not know and thou shalt progress.” – Maimonides

Having been back from China for several weeks now, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the experience and am moving forward with the next steps in our project: creating consent forms, applying for human subjects’ approval, publicizing what we’re doing, etc., etc.  But what I’ve really been thinking about is: what can I offer and what can I learn?  It seems in international work, speaking as one who has never done it, there are both benefits and dangers in bringing in outside ideas and solutions.   This is probably not news to anyone reading this blog.  However, I found during my most recent trip that keeping my thoughts to myself about how various issues in Tongi village should be addressed was challenging.  Now those of you that know me know that I have no shortage of opinions so perhaps this is simply a problem of personality.  Yet, an NPR story the other day featured someone working in Africa who posited that the way to make problems worse than before you arrived was to “NGO” the situation.  By this he meant, taking outside solutions and imposing them in ways that either were not sustainable with the resources available within the target community or that inadvertently undermined some central value that outsiders were unaware of or insensitive to.  So when I was asked earlier this week what the long-term goals were for the project, I took a deep breath and said something we’re not supposed to say in academics, “I don’t know.”  There is so much to learn about China and about our collaboration with our colleagues at East China University of Science and Technology.  We had good news last week that we now have a bit of additional funding that will allow us to work on bringing the collaboration back into our respective classrooms and will bring in a partner from another Shanghai university.  But the truth is I have no idea exactly where all of this will lead.   As I listened in Shanghai, and held my tongue, I learned.  I learned that the families living in Tongi village are missing their elders.  Elders play a critical role in Chinese families and have for generations.  When families migrate to the city without them the normal ways of meeting daily needs and expectations in family life are upended.  Guess what?  This is true for the immigrant families we work with in North Carolina.  Most of them have also left their elders behind meaning that families are attempting to operate in ways that are completely different than what they might have done in their home countries and what they have seen modeled since childhood.  I have been working with new immigrants in various ways for the last eleven years but have never thought about this issue.   So by being quiet, listening, and not knowing, I learned something important that may bring new dimensions into my work here in North Carolina.

Language Lessons – Last Day in Shanghai

Being stranded in the Shanghai airport for five hours, knowing that I will miss my connecting flight in Chicago, thus delaying my return home, and my husband’s return to work, is not really a laughing matter.  But I am laughing because I just saw a sign that was translated to say, “DONATE TO THE SHANGHAI WORKERS’ FUND TO ASSIST THE DIFFICULT.”  And because I am laughing, I am not becoming difficult though I would really like to.

Historically, there was a lot of resistance to teaching outsiders Mandarin in China.  It was thought that westerners could not learn it or should not be allowed to learn it.   As I make my own attempts at learning the language I certainly wonder whether it’s a losing proposition.  Each trip I’ve made to China I’ve learned a few words and phrases.  Being highly motivated in the coffee area, I can successfully order a cup of coffee with milk and sugar.  Generally, I’m probably about like an 18 month old with a bit of a speech delay.  I’m getting to where I can ask a few questions but I have no idea what people are saying when they answer!  As I listen to conversations, I catch a word here and there but certainly not the overall drift of the conversation. 

And then there is reading.  I find Chinese characters so beautiful and intriguing.  But from what I’ve read, you must know 1000 of them to be considered literate at the most basic level.  I can reliably recognize about 4. 

Thankfully, my Chinese colleagues have been studying English since they were young.  Now all Chinese youngsters begin studying English in school when they are 3 and they continue to study it all the way through school.   Many take additional classes outside of school to strengthen their skills.  My friends began studying later but are quite good in their speaking and reading ability.  Being with them as we try to bridge a language divide always makes me a little ashamed that they should have to work so hard in their country as I sit there confident that someone will speak to me in my native tongue.  

But I suppose there has always been a lingua franca and now it is English. Because of that, I was able to make new friends from all over the world as I attended my first international conference.  On the first night of the conference (and every subsequent evening), I found myself at a dinner table with social work professors from China, Germany, Australia, the UK, Ethiopia, and even Bangladesh.  The conference was a on the small side and our Chinese hosts had scheduled things so that we did almost everything as a group.  It would’ve been impossible to wander through paper sessions, go off on your own for lunch or dinner, and never meet anyone new. The days were long and there were moments when I didn’t think I could be social for another second.  But on the whole, it was engaging and thought-provoking.  As I talked with people I learned that social workers in Germany led the way in harm reduction techniques for IV drug abusers advocating for needle exchanges when no other profession was on board.  I learned about the crisis of higher education in Africa.  A colleague from Australia was joining our group after two weeks of humanitarian work in Lebanon.  And in the midst of these serious conversations there was a lot of good will and laughter.   This morning as I left, my new friend from Bangladesh gave me a book of his poetry.  Each poem is written in English and Arabic – another language I will never master.   But perhaps it doesn’t matter.  Maybe what matters is that we find things to laugh about even in the midst of difficult situations and go from there.