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While talking to a colleague one evening outside my apartment—both of us were with our bicycles—a female stranger in her electric scooter bike stopped right in front of us. The stranger, Mrs. Wong, was on her way home from high school where she taught science. My colleague was a very elegant young lady, who was from Belgium. She was no rookie, and had taught in a college in Shanghai for some time. This chance meeting with her was important to me, because she had a habit of not answering her phone calls, or reading her emails. She was a recluse, or a private person. She was a popular teacher with her many students because she was patient, open, and helpful to students, who were eager to learn from her. She had introduced innovative ways to reach her students or encourage her students to respond enthusiastically to her style of teaching. She cared deeply for her students. She and her parents had immigrated to Europe when she was a little girl, from one of the Caribbean Islands.
Mrs. Wong somehow had heard about me and she was delighted to meet me in person. She introduced herself. She and her husband and her son Jacob had moved all the way from the north—Heilongjiang Province—because she wanted her son to attend a high school that was associated with Xiamen University, a prestigious university in the south of China.
What this mother did was nothing new to me. For years in Japan, “Japanese moms” would do whatever they could in their power or means to enroll their children in certain kindergartens because these kindergartens were associated with the top reputable universities in Japan. In Japan, anyone who graduates from an elite university would be guaranteed a high-paying job. So “Japanese moms” would start to enroll their kids in the best kindergartens. In America, to my knowledge, we do not operate such kinds of kindergarten schools. Most kindergartens—those for pre-school children—in my neighborhood in America, are owned by private individuals, with licenses to operate such institutions.
In 2011 in America, a Yale law professor Amy Chua coined the word “tiger mother” in her memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. It is a picture of a demanding Asian mother who would resort to whatever means for her child to achieve the highest levels academically or scholastically. Many white mothers immediately accused her of unrealistic goals and high ridiculous expectations. Not all American mothers supported her way of raising her two bright and brilliant daughters, and they questioned her methods as typical of childrearing in some parts of East Asia, South Asia and Southeast Asia. Not in our America, they said. One of the daughters
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openly defended her tiger mom, and her upbringing as being appropriate and beneficial to her and her life today.
So what Mrs. Wong was trying to do for her son did not surprise me at all. Her husband was in charge of the school dormitory system, and they had an apartment in another complex, adjacent to mine. She asked if I would have the time to be her son’s mentor—first year in high school—because she felt strongly the ability to speak and write English well and fluently would help her son to do well in college and his future in China. I was more than happy to be her son’s mentor. The boy could come to my apartment on weekends for private lessons. We did this for a few months until the boy moved to live in the dormitory. And I had received many gifts because of my commitment to her son.
I met another woman who was anxious if I would be willing to be a mentor to her high school son. She and her twin sister, both in their 50s, were selling fuding rou pian, a special soup, to students outside our campus. Many students, with money and now expanding girth, would eat outside the campus; some dissatisfied with foods in our school canteens, and others a time to savor new flavorful dishes with friends. I was personally delighted to find different kinds of noodles from different provinces in China, sold outside in restaurants or small night stores by hawkers, that would line the street every evening. Some hot and spicy. Some mild and ordinary. From cheap to expensive, but nothing beyond the means of most students. Many would order this take-home fuding rou pian cooked and sold by the two twin sisters. This rou pian—literally sliced meat—came from a town called Fuding. Most students would tell me “there is no real meat in the soup”.
The two sisters did not have to pay rent in a building to operate their simple business. All they had was a cart with a big cauldron, and a few simple tools, and simple ingredients to make this special soup, deliciously hot for cool evenings. There were other night hawkers selling the same soup, each with a slightly, distinctive flavor. It was very popular among the students. And out of the blue one evening, one of the twin sisters asked me if I would help his high-school son with his English. She knew me because I was a regular customer. I was also a foreign teacher on the campus. To me, having studied economics in my life, I quickly made a deal with her: teach me how to make this soup and I would start the English lesson as soon as your son is ready to come for his first lesson at my apartment. And that was our verbal contract, between two adults. And Tom, the son, was excited to have an American teacher to work with him on his English. Today I have my own version of fuding rou pian, with real meat.
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The same was true when I spent a week in a famous town called Pu’er in Yunnan Province, a town famous for its tea, Pu’er tea, sold all over China. I went there because many foreigners would go there to escape from the heat where I was. My student’s father was a banker in the town, and he put me in a very luxurious hotel owned by his bank. After a day or two, he was not shy to invite me to come to his town to operate an English school. Teaching English is a lucrative business industry in China. There are English schools everywhere in China, thousands of them, because today’s parents somehow have this strange belief, that English is the key to a good life, and the key to entering the world in the West. And many today are leaving China for the West. But unfortunately I was married to my university and could not think of leaving the comfort of my school to start a whole new career in an unknown city. I graciously declined the invitation to come, though I love the cool weather in Yunnan Province, a haven for many foreigners to escape the heat in other parts of China.
The opportunity to teach English is everywhere in China. And I could be making tons of money if I were to charge all my time spent to help many students during my leisure time. I opened the door to tutor only two high school students who lived in my neighborhood. I worked with many college students on weekends, especially those who wanted to improve their oral English with me. Outside the formal classes.
Of course, this would take place in my living room in a one-bedroom apartment. The living room was spacious enough for me to have my computer table against one corner of the room, next to a big comfortable couch, a 5-foot high book shelf against one wall, an upright piano against another wall, and a table in the center of the room with four chairs for meals and mahjong games. Up above the couch was a large poster picture of a beautiful countryside. And above the book shelf was a huge map of the world—a Pacific centered map with China in the center. As a spoiled American, the university paid me enough housing allowance to install two air-conditioners for my comfort and also mosquito-screens for my windows and the sliding door to the balcony. Only this American wanted to live in comfort and luxury.
It did surprise me when I first lived in China that some of my student guests would tell me to turn off the air-conditioner for their comfort. Their comfort! Many complained to me of feeling cold in an air-conditioned room. And with every opportunity with my students, I would always say this, “I will die without any air-conditioner in China.” A few visited me in Washington State, and they understood why I would constantly talk about living in a place which is neither hot nor cold twelve months a year. And that is where I live, in the Pacific Northwest, outside Seattle. During my years teaching in the university, most regular classrooms were not air-conditioned for the unbelievably hot summer months or heated during the cold
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winter months. I admired how students and their parents could live without a heater during the very cold winters or an air-conditioner during the scorching summers. Chinese are a special breed, I concluded.
In some new apartments, there are no built-in closets. In my case, they gave me an old cupboard for my clothes, and a bed for two, and a television set. But I had to wire the apartment for TV and the use of the internet. There was plenty of space in the bathroom. The only room in the house with hot water. There was no hot water for my washer located in the balcony. There was no hot water in my kitchen. Americans love big kitchens, one reason why many are so fat and many homes have big refrigerators and big freezers. My Chinese kitchen was so small I had to place my small refrigerator on top of one counter, to allow me the room to open its door. On the next counter, I had two induction hot plates, next to the sink, to cook my meals.
At the beginning of a new semester I had time to invite a few students over on weekends to have dinner with me. It did not cost me too much to spend some time with three or four students each time for a simple meal at a local restaurant. We would usually order two vegetables, one meat and one fish and the regular soup and steamed rice for less than twenty American dollars. My purpose was to introduce students to each other because they were from different departments, and after dinner to play mahjong with me in my apartment. I would do this at the beginning of a new semester for a few weeks when students were not burdened with their lessons, homework and studies. A few of them would volunteer to cook in my kitchen, their favorite home-cooked meals they had learned from their parents. Though most boys and girls in China were barred from their kitchens at home, because parents and grandparents somehow wanted them to devote more time to their studies. Most of them would be staying in their dormitories from junior to high schools in China. Even when they returned home on weekends, if their schools were not too far away, they would not be allowed into the kitchens.
I had encouraged a few of them, who were planning to study overseas, to spend some time in their kitchens during the holidays to learn some simple techniques on how to prepare simple meals from their mothers or fathers or grandparents. As the only child in a family, many of our young people are “kitchen illiterate”…and why worry? Because fast foods are everywhere in China. According to many of my students, fathers are the best cooks in their families. Mothers are hopeless and useless. Just watch them cook, ok? I love to cook, anywhere in the world. “Let us not go out to eat in a restaurant. I prefer to eat your cooking.” A few of my students would say this to me.
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China has the best morning markets, to me, in the world. There you would meet farmers bringing their assortment of vegetables, live chickens or ducks or fish or frogs or rabbits, and sell them to you, rather cheaply. And they would love you if you could speak some Chinese, and learn the skill of bargaining.
Having the privilege to spend my holidays with different friends around the world, one thing is certain: if you take time to cook your own meals, everything for a meal is relatively cheap anywhere in the world. Even in my country, the United States of America. Even in USA, there are places selling cheaper products than others…if you live in any place in the world long enough, you will find those places. I found them while living and working in China. I found morning markets were the best places for me to shop for anything related to my meal preparations.
This is China.