Thursday, April 2, 2015

White Noise

White noise. Every city has it. And each city is unique unto it's texture, the feel of the sound pulsing from the street. 

San Jose, California resonates with buzzing aircraft and the dull roar of traffic from the 101, along with a mingling of chittering squirrels and crows squawking. San Francisco has clanking trolleys and sea gull cries, while Sacramento has a muted, mean sound, like a draw bridge raised manually, a low rumble punctuated with cogs setting before being drawn out to set again.

I have always been aware of this phenomenon. Strange, you might say, because I am a person with low hearing capacity. I was born with, among other things, a deformed or congealed right ear. I lack the sound grabbing part known as ear lobes as well as an entry method,  the ear canal. My left ear is ok but the ear canal is much smaller than normal. My parents did what they could, even going to great lengths to reconstruct my inner ear on the right side. The no canal thing mucked up that operation. Irony is thick because the reconstruction work inside was terrifically successful, but the canal work failed twice. Great receiver, no wire.

When I first came to Zhongshan one of my most vivid memories, other than how beautiful the women were, was the sheer magnitude of it's white noise. I sat rooftop of the community where Capital Language School had stationed me and I listened. The most obvious sound emanating from down below was honking horns. Even after midnight the air would be shattered by some impatient driver,  rushing nowhere for no other reason other than he, or she, was the emperor of the moment and those before them should give way to their Excellency.

The next punctuation in the night sky would have to be the recyclers with their rhythm of ringing metal. The ding, ding, ding of improvised clapper to improvised bell, ringing in a slow doppler as they pedaled past the closing restaurants and hair salons. The true white noise emerges in the silences between. Voices. Uncountable and indistinguishable, rising and falling like surf at the sea. Sometimes a single person's laughter brings on the high tide and for a while they eclipse even the impatient drivers and weary recyclers.

This year, after a disastrous class with a couple of exceptional students, who unfortunately were what I classify as 'soft speakers,' I decided I needed to handle this issue of my poor hearing. The obvious solution was amplified hearing devices; hearing aids. Except I can't have the plural since my reconstructed and fully functional right side lacks both a canal and lobes to hold the device in that side. So, a single device, positioned in my left ear, operating on its own to deliver sound waves to my eager brain.

The current generation has probably never experienced single-speaker radio or TV broadcasts so they have little to go on when I say my audio experience has literally been monotone. All sound coming though a single receptor creates a range of issues all by itself. Imagine sound without triangulation. Triangulation is what your brain does automatically with the sound it gets from two, equidistant receivers. It essentially clues you into where the sound is coming from, it lets you find the source. Important, for example, when a sabre-tooth tiger is bearing down on you from the left! A single hearing aid provides no triangulation.

I had actually purchased a hearing device in Zhongshan years ago. It was an unmitigated disaster. The technicians molding the device did such a horrid job that the simple act of smiling would produce a feedback squeal even those around me could hear. If I were chewing food, the feedback would keep count of the number of times I bit down. Finally I took to removing the device whenever I didn't need to hear anything specifically, and of course I lost the hearing aid. 5,000 RMB spent on squeals and the occasional amplified discourse. I figured I could go back to lip reading.

This time I figure there would be no expense spared. I would find and purchase the best. This is tough in China where the best may be at best, a copy. My research led me to Phonak, a Swiss company operating in Hong Kong, Guangzhou, and Macau. The offices in Hong Kong were impossible to locate, the offices in Guangzhou were mired in the city center, so I decided to go with the Macau branch. The new E-train can get me to Zhuhai GongBei in a matter of minutes, the border crossing, while a pain in the ass, was doable, and the number seventeen bus would drop me practically at the doorstep of the Phonak people.

It was expensive. 12,000 HKD after discount expensive. The doe-eyed technician, Cammy,  spoke some English, and working together we got the right audio mix programmed in. The molding technicians, through Cammy, explained that my past issue with feedback squeal had been due to a poorly shaped device and that they would make sure this was not an issue with my new device. And all-in-all they did a good job. Once again I was tapped into the world audio sensation.

My current home is in GangKou. So named after the fact that it holds within it's township several important rivers and harbors that connect Guangdong to the world. Just out my balcony lies two rivers in an X formation, with my community in the inside peak of the X. The two rivers are not major estuaries, nor are they 'stinky' rivers of flowing excrement. But there is a low bridge constructed in typical Chinese fashion where the transition from street to bridge is anything but smooth. This means the white noise I experience now, every night and day, is subjected to the abrupt thunk of tires on changing surfaces.

Being dual-riverside means I get twice the traffic of loud, diesel powered sampans cruising past on mysterious missions at all hours of the night. Being in this particular community, which forbids pets of any type, I get serenaded by multiple dogs howling at lanterns they mistake as the red moon. The voices are here too. Sometimes a soft rumble, other times a party of raucous dialog erupting from God knows where. There are nice sounds too. My morning alarm clock consists of birdsong from the garden below and of course the newest sound sensation, my own family wakening. Childish voices, laughter and arguments and Mom's intervention.

White noise. It can pinpoint where you are down to the city and season,  if the listener is trained well enough. It can also illustrate a person's location in their own life journey. Sounds in the distance can become sounds nearby and voices indistinct can become voices that require your attention. As in your wife, your children, your life; no longer white noise but the sound you make as you join the cacophony.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Naming of Chong Shan

May Day is one of the dwindling Chinese holidays. It used to be a full-on Golden Week, with the entire population of China free to vacation simultaneously for 7 days, but nowadays it’s a micro-holiday with three days off from school in most cases. I’ll blog more on Chinese holidays later, right now I want to share our adventure this week that led to the Naming of Chong Shan.

For those of you not linguistically bent towards Mandarin Chinese, “shan” means “mountain.”

The May Day holiday worked out this year to two half days and one full day off from teaching and since it was also our wedding anniversary, Angie and I decided to take the family to the beach.  We always have a good time at Zha Po and it’s only a bit more than a three-hour drive so off we went. We packed our cooking gear, a rice pot for Angie and a folding hot plate for me (and of course my coffee-maker). The girls packed their Barbie accessories and dolls, their beach toys, and a mess of books. Baba came along toting nothing more than a small bag with a change of clothes. We threw a beanbag in the back of the BYD (we have an S-6 SUV) for the kids to lounge on as we drove and under a warm, spring sky we set out.

Every time we go to Zha Po we always stay at the same place; The Shadow of Sails Hotel.  It’s old, moldy, and cheap but it has three things that we love: It’s at the far end of the beach, away from the masses; it’s got an interesting design and the room we always book has two floors with sky light views of the sea, sleeping up stairs and entertaining downstairs with a nice big ocean-facing balcony; and finally, we know we can get away with breaking a few rules there.

When you go to a seaside town in China, the only restaurants are seafood joints that charge outrageous prices for mediocre meals. We know this and we bring our “kitchen” with us when ever we go. Angie runs out to haggle with the local fisherman and she often comes back with seafood far superior to anything the restaurants serve. She also knows where to get the best “beggars Chicken” which is something everyone should enjoy at least 1,000 times in their life. Beggars Chicken is made by the locals in Zha Po, tucked away from the sea in the hills above the town. A whole chicken is covered with seasonings and oil, wrapped in paper, and then encased in a block of clay. The clay blocks are then laid out over a large coal bed and covered with soil (sand? More clay? I don’t know.) When its done baking, you break away the clay block, unwrap the blackened paper, and then with plastic-gloved hands you tear into the hot, aromatic chicken, ripping away the flesh and bones with little or no effort. It is delicious, messy, and my absolute favorite way to eat chicken.

Next to our hotel is the South China Sun Holiday Resort, a massive and abandoned hotel with similarly abandoned beach amenities such as a beachfront garden, snack shop, acupuncture walking trails and so on. There seems to be nothing wrong with the building, other than is it empty, and falling into negligent dis-repair. My theory is the resort failed because despite the beach and beckoning surf, swimming is not allowed. There are men wearing green camouflaged fatigues stationed at one end of the beach, which is delineated by a rope with colored flags that runs from the end of the “paid area” of the beach along the surf-line of the beach to the mountain that juts into the sea. These men are armed with whistles and unrelenting energy. They are ever vigilant and they will pursue you if you dare to cross the surf-line. That does tend to discourage holiday travellers from staying at the South China Sun Holiday Resort, when just down the beach, in front of the “paid access” beaches, there are countless other hotels.

Next to the South China Sun Holiday Resort is the mountain that I had eyed on previous visits. A mountain with a steep trail carved into it that appeared to lead to an undeveloped hillside that invited unimpeded ocean views, the “shan” in our newly named Chong Shan.

I decided that I'd climb the mountain in the morning after our first night in Zha Po. It's a pretty steep climb so my first thought was to just take Annie along. She's almost 7 now and I wanted to start including her in big people adventures. By the time we actually left for the mountain our adventure included Mandy, my four year-old daughter, and Baba, my wifes father. Angie, five months into our third pregnancy, was to stay behind and shop for supplies.

The base of the mountain trail was steep; sometimes hands were required in climbing. Everyone did great. Mandy banged her knee (again, she is known as fall-down baby) but she didnt cry. Annie was wearing her shiny red lantern shoes something like a cross between fancy strap sandals and tap shoes, which were not really suitable for climbing mountains, but she did so wonderfully. The real adventure started when we reached the forested part of the mountain, just after the steep climb.

Baba had the lead, Mandy was next, then Annie, with me in the anchor position. Baba and Mandy had stopped and were looking up at something when I reached them. They were looking at what I thought were a couple fishing lines caught up in the trees. I thought of fishing lines because it appeared there were live, wriggling worms on hooks across the pathway where we were headed. It was bizarre. The "worms" at first looked like little dog-bone shaped twigs, somehow dangling from a spider-like thread. A closer look revealed irregular "legs" that seemed to be actually spinning the web that held them suspended and in fact the insects were descending from the tree tops, down towards us!

Baba picked up a branch and swatted the insects and their invisible web to the ground. As we progressed deeper in to the wooded trail we were horrified to find that these things were all over the place. The girls, to their credit, other than short squeals and squeaks at every new discovery, bravely continued on. Baba had to break off a bigger branch, and, undaunted, he resumed the lead, bush whacking his way through the descending worms. At one point we stopped because a particularly large specimen had fallen onto the trail and my brave, adventurous daughters were trying to overcome their fear and step over the wriggling monstrosity. It was then that Annie noted, with a soft, horrified whisper, that the insects appeared to have red mouths that gaped like the goldfish we keep in the girls bathroom. That upped the creepy-factor a ten fold. But I began spinning my own web. I told the girls they were probably caterpillars on their way up to the tree tops to spin cocoons before later becoming beautiful butterflies so let's not fear them and let's march on and we can do this, to the top of the mountain I cried and so we resumed.

Every now and then I'd tell Baba to stop as I picked wriggling hitchhikers off his shirt collar, or from his hair. Baba never flinched. He whacked and we climbed and he whacked and we climbed until we reached the top of the mountain. The view was magnificent but the trail continued. It forked, one path going down to a beautiful promontory on the ocean side and one turning back into the mountain, back into the heavily treed canopy like what we'd just hacked through. I asked the girls if they wanted to continue and in unison they responded to the negative. No whining, no crying, just a statement. We've had enough wiggling, dangling, red mouthed worms dropping on us from above, let's go home. So with a longing glance at the ocean bearing path and the rocky promontory below, I turned and took them back down the mountain.

The worms were there, all the way back down. Dozens descending, some small, some as long as three inches, all swinging on invisible thread that between the reality of web-to-skin contact, and the imagined web-to-skin contact, had us all a little weirded out. Annie was slapping at her ankles, I was running my fingers through my sweat soaked hair every chance I got, Mandy was concentrating on not falling down and Baba, well, Baba was unflappable. 

When I told Annie how she could regale her classmates with tales of our adventures she cheered up immediately, and by the time we hit the bottom of the trail Annie was running ahead excitedly to tell mom everything. We decided to name the mountain Chong Shan, which translates to worm mountain and we all agreed that while the end view was great, the journey was just not worth it.

Me? I wanted a shower badly. I could not shake the creepy sensation of clinging webs and creepy crawlers and the image that I had of Baba' neck where I'd pulled some of the worms off. He had a couple small, red nicks near his shirt collar, like he'd cut himself shaving. Baba is Chinese; he rarely shaves.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

yeah, it's been a while.

11/2, 11:32 Pm. Been in USA for about a month now, me and my two amazing angels. I've grown so close to them. I miss my wife.

I've come to America with a list of goals. Number one: introduce my offspring to a family that had long given up hope of leaves sprouting from my branch of the Stine tree. A sense of obligation drove me to this as I suspect a return visit will be long in coming. From both sides of the pond. I, having fulfilled my familial obligations on the western side, will focus on familial obligations of the eastern side. They, my western family, having met my progeny, must decide if prejudice and fear can be overcome long enough to suffer the journey red-side. My stories haven't helped, I know.

Number two goal: Immerse, soak even, my girls in my native world. In this goal I have netted the most incredible gains. Anna, Amanda, both girls, dove into my world with no fear. They swam among the various schools of family and friends effortlessly. There were so many cases of daddy standing slack-jawed at their English proficiency that people began to whisper of dementia. It's true. In one crystal clear scene my Annie was having her eyes examined by an optomologist in Goodyear, Arizona. He adjusted his fly-eyed contraption in front of her not-so-Chinese-eyes while advising her soothingly to tell him what she saw. She did so. Easily, in English, absolutely correctly. Food was a slow-going introduction but in the end, they never cried for white rice. I suspect a passerby would never suspect these girls had been US citizens for only 28 days. Proud does not cover my emotions.

Goal number three: Get some old world while I can. I have gained a minimum of ten pounds since my arrival from Hong Kong some 28 days past. I've eaten Japanese, Mexican, Italian, Chinese, and American, oh yeah American. I've enjoyed an American BBQ of an entire pig, American beef steaks with baked potatoes, Chicken wings in three distinct flavors, and chili. Turkey chili, canned chili, suicide hot chili and chili-cheese frys. Man I've eaten so many bowls of breakfast cereal with fresh fruit added that my first Chinese noodle breakfast may trigger gastrinological rebellion. I had to wait until today to do any clothes shopping here in the world-wide consumer Mecca. Walmart slapped me hard with easy prices and myriad opportunities but it was a little known Kohl's store that stole my wallets heart. I spent as much as I saved and this fact alone guarantees my spousal satisfaction home-side.

A final, first achieved goal, was the Americanization of my two daughters citizenship status. Life hands us peaches every now and then and when the Family Planning Bureau in ShouGuan, China gave us travel permission for both our daughters I was slow to grasp the sweetness. It took an email session with an elder sister to trigger the implications and once I got it, we got it. Annie and Mandy are now US citizens, visa required for any and all trips to China, their homeland.

It's 12:29 Am 11/3. My belly is full of macaroni salad, chicken wings and baked beans, my mind is engulfed in Canadian whiskey and memories of Halloween highs. It is a trip we will never forget. Thank you, my home land, for being even sweeter than I remembered.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Coconut Glee

Mama and Baba were walking through a grove of palm trees on Green Leaf Beach, ZhangJiang city in South China. My girls and I were playing in the warm surf nearby. Mama calls out to me "Daniel, guo lai, ni kan yi xia, ("Daniel, come here, have a look," translated into mandarin from cantonese.) She has this look of near rapture on her face, the happiest I've seen her. Annie, Mandy, and I walk over the where she and Baba (papa) are apparently harvesting coconuts with smiles as big as the secluded beach we were on. Baba whips out his pocketknife and cuts the top off a coconut, handing it to mama, who takes a big drink, wipes her mouth and offers it to me with so much glee I cannot help but chuckle.

It gets me to thinking about what makes the people in my life happy, what puts the glee where all can see. For Annie, my eldest, it's Barbie DVD's and Hannah/Babara cartoons. She sings along with Island Barbie, flutters with Mariposa Barbie, and when Tom and Jerry one-up another, she rolls on the couch in laughter. For Mandy, it's daredevil shoulder rides, red lanterns hung from every tree on the boulevard, and jumping. She jumps on everything from Daddy's beer belly to the top bunk of her bunk bed. This has earned her the nickname "Fall down baby" as she tends to forget she's land bound. Angie, get's gleeful over discount shopping and spontaneous humor. I've seen her collapse into a Chinese squat over a simple joke, her shoulders shuddering and her eyes alight as she fights to compose herself enough to stand again.

I get gleeful over glee itself. Glee is rare in this world of rapidly evolving cynicism, of seen everything now so nothing can touch me. It's easy to forget the simple joys in life. With the world's grief, mistakes, bad deeds, and bad examples of humanity paraded before our eyes non-stop; every newscast, web cast, podcast, or broadcast peppered with reasons to look away, it's easy to say "Maybe we can't." It takes simple glee, the experience of seeing another being in it's optimal state; smiling completely, eyes and mouths in tandem with a happy heart, to fill a person with a sense of "Maybe we can." For those of you out there who feel the world has become a darker place, take a look around you; find your glee. It could be in a coconut, a cartoon, a cartwheel or in a lovers smile. It's there, you've just stopped looking.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Salt Shaker

I swear I did a little dance right there in the Yi Jia Yi supermarket. Eureka, I have found it! After a week of dedicated search missions to every major and minor shopping venue in the city I found the object of my hunt in my own back yard; a salt shaker. It was a glass and plastic number with your average twisting cap that alternated between sprinkle and pour. Yeah the sprinkle holes were too big but what the hell, right? It's a salt shaker in a land where salt shakers are rare and pepper shakers fail the existence test altogether.

Angie met Mandy and I outside the store. I presented my find to her noncommittal shrug while visions of culinary possibilities danced around in my head. When we arrived at our new house, the catalyst for the original journey, I gleefully retrieved the small container from my wife's purse and proudly showed it to my village-raised Mother-in-Law. She said something in Hakka, I've got no idea what it is, nor do I care. I am filling the vessel with salt and with great satisfaction, I place it next to the frying pan where it rightfully belongs. I consider banning the old salt bowl and spoon number but decide instead to let mama have hers while I have mine.

The next day the salt shaker is somehow clogged with lumps of salt. It's like mama used it to season the bottom of the soup. After I wound down my normal cleanliness tirade, I thought to ask what it was mama had said when I first showed her the shaker. Angie said in an even tone

"She said it looked like a toothpick holder,"

And it struck me true. It WAS a toothpick holder. How could I have been so blinded to it's purpose? Did I want a salt shaker so badly that I projected it's image on something else entirely? Heat intensified as I recalled my cocky presentation of this western wonder to my Chinese family. I'm an idiot. They know it, I know it, the people at Yi Jia Yi know it. It occurs to me that it really does not matter that this glass and plastic amalgam was born a toothpick holder. It has been reborn. A salt shaker has risen and I shall see to it that it's quest for greatness is fulfilled.

My eggs this morning were decidedly not over salted. My converted toothpick holder, now salt shaker, was placed up on the high shelves. It sits now in an exalted place, next to my snack stash and ground espresso coffee, up high where only I possess the legs to reach. And when my culinary cravings come caroming my way it will not be a toothpick holder that I bring down, but a salt shaker in it's sprinkle setting.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

And now the new year...

New Years Eve and I'm teaching until 9PM again. I can't hook up with my foreign friends for best boy boozing because our new house is across town and the police have bribe stations spread out across all the major highways and byways. Angie got caught in one last night, she was saved by the rain that fell. Cops here hate the rain, they'll abandon a line of sure-thing payments to get out of it. They told her to wait right where she was, and then they all motored away. Imagine how many people stayed where they were.

I think I'll grab a bottle of fifty-plus percent and hide away in my new second story office with a DVD and a blanket. Yeah, it's cold right now. Most houses don't have central air, much less heat. Our two space heaters will crank out 3 feet of heat for our babies and parent-in-laws. Strangers reading this blog might air a criticism, something like "why don't you spend it with your family, you schmuck!" and I'll be forced to explain the sad fact that this day, this New Years Eve at the end of the first decade of the second millennium is just another Thursday to them. The babes will be in bed by nine, the folks by nine-thirty, the wife by ten.

Chinese New Year is sometime in February, the fourteenth I think. You can bet your ass there will be a party then. It'll be the Year of the Tiger, fireworks will fly from every balcony and droves of people will converge upon the open air market seeking treasures and plum blossoms. I'll be there, among them, celebrating who knows what for as long as they let me. You learn to take a party when you can get one in this country.

Happy New Years to those of you about to stay out late tonight, blow a party horn for me will ya!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Red Christmas

Haze paints Zhongshan with a soft brush as I drive Annie to her Kindergarten. I’m trying to figure out how I can ignite the magic of Christmas within her four-year-old heart. In the past three Christmas’s I put up a tree, placed presents underneath and lights around it. I’ve played Christmas music and tried to stoke the Santa surprise, but you know what? It’s never caught on.

It could be the isolation factor. None of her classmates understand or properly observe the holiday. Even within our nuclear family there is a great deal of nonchalance and “ Let’s humor Daddy” as I struggle to implant warm fuzzies in our future generation. Yesterday while on the cell with my wife I asked her if she’d pick up some wrapping paper for the gifts I bought. We finally gave up the conversation as she just could not determine what the hell I was talking about. It’s a language thing and it’s a cultural thing. The Chinese cannot fathom the purpose for wrapping gifts. “Why not simply put it in a bag or just put it under the tree as it is,” She’d asked. How can I explain the anticipation? How can I successfully transplant my culture on this very special holiday?

Around town and in our community blinking Christmas lights are going up in window fronts and store displays. The businesses would love to see the consumer frenzy the Western world is so familiar with. However, ask anyone if they have a tree, or if they have been naughty or nice, and you get a blank look. Every year after Christmas I’d ask my students the same question; what did Santa bring you? Apparently, Santa passes China up because if I ever do get an answer, it's about a red envelope with x amount of cash inside.

Now please don’t misunderstand me, I am not supporting the shopping madness with all its pressures and repercussions as we see so frequently in the West, I only suggest the warmth and glow that comes from giving and not expecting in return. The gifts matter very little. What matters is the joy, the twinkle, not of Christmas lights but of a child's delight. The exciting, breathless moment when a colorful box is placed in your lap and it’s all yours, and you got it just for being a good girl and daddy and mommy are watching and so is little sister and oh the sound of paper tearing and the building of anticipation as paper flies out and something new flies in. This is Christmas, this is a memory that builds confidence and the ability to share and love and be loved.

And this is what I am trying to create this morning as I drop off Annie and head off to find colorful wrapping paper. My wife tells me not to worry about buying her a gift, her parents haven’t a clue as to the holiday, but I know better. I will buy my wife a gift, her parents too. Come Christmas morning, they will, for an instant at least, feel some of the magic when that something special is placed in their lap. I will play Christmas music. I will light up our living room in reds and greens. I will put the girls to bed early on Christmas Eve, and I will wake them early on Christmas morning. We will sit around the tree, wiping sleep from our eyes and looking in wonder at the magic tree that the night before held only a few present but now is completely surrounded by boxes and packages and baskets and are those socks on the wall? No I’ll explain, they are stockings, have a look girls. And they will hop up and run to the stockings and pour out candy and fruit and tiny toys and there will be shrieks of joy from both and my heart will know again the feeling of completed circles.

It’s Christmas time in China and in my house, it will catch on.