Dear Q: Don Juan Coming Clean

Dear Q,

I love a woman as beautiful as the ocean breeze collapsing on the cheek as it rests solely divine upon the crisp sand of dawn. She once loved me, now no more. Out of my deep love for her, I once confessed all my lovers of the past. Tragically, I am the greatest lover in all the world. I have had many conquests but now I only desire one. How can I in back my lover’s heart?

Signed,

Unfortunate Don Juan

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Dear Don Juan,

You have a way with words…and women, so it would seem. You’re the very picture of what the Chinese call “lang zi hui tou.” You were once a cavalier Casanova, a debauched Don Juan, but then you met your match. Your lady love, in her coyly cunning way, wanted to dig out all the dirt on your playboy past and it appears she succeeded. So you fessed up, she stormed off, now what? Tsk, tsk, cluck, cluck, this is an age-old tricky problem. Had you not already come clean I might’ve told you to reply to her prying with a cool “The past is the past, all that matters is that I now love you.” (At a certain age it becomes rather childish to pursue all the lurid details of a lover’s past, upsetting each other, does it not?) But now that the damage is done, there is little you can un-do. It’s no use pretending you were momentarily schizophrenic, drunk, or suffer from compulsive lying (not that these would help your case). You just have to put in your dues (ply her with flowers, poems, and assurance of your constant love for her and only her) and bide your time. If she loves you, she’ll get over the number shock and learn to trust again. If she’s too afraid of becoming another notch on the bedpost, well then, it’s her loss at a chance with “The Greatest Lover in All the World,” isn’t it?

Cheers,

Q

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Dear Q: “The Wife Is Out”

Dear Q,

I have a wonderful husband who adores me. But recently I’ve started to feel that he’s into spending time with me a little too much. I used to work a high-powered job that kept me in the office for long hours, but quit shortly before getting married. The first year of post-corporate married life was bliss. I constantly hung out with the Mister and enjoyed every minute of it. This year, I’m applying to graduate school and am buried under piles of work again. Being busy suits me fine but my husband hasn’t clued into my new schedule. It’s slightly annoying that while I’m trying to beef up my test scores and brainstorm personal statements, he just wants to play. I feel horrible for complaining “my husband loves me too much.” How can I make more time for myself without hurting his feelings?

Signed,

Mrs. Smothered

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Dear Smothered,

Sister, I feel ya. As a fellow ex-corporate slave and current freelancer, I also struggle with setting limits in my loosely organized days. Your poor husband just hasn’t worked out the change in your needs from last year to this year. Who can blame him? On the outside, nothing’s different. When he gets off work, you’re still at home instead of at a meeting in your power suit. Sure, you talk about grad school and spend more time hitting the books, but these small changes may escape his notice (he is a man after all). He can’t see the changes that go on in your head, so when you’re “in the work zone” it might look like “she could use a cuddle” to him. Help him figure out your needs and help yourself fight the temptation to procrastinate by creating a symbolic “home office.” You don’t have to knock down walls or move to a bigger flat. Just set aside a dedicated work corner in your home, whether it’s a private room (if you have the space) or just a fixed seat at the dining table. In addition to the physical limits, it also helps to agree on some “soft signals” to let him know when you don’t want to be bothered. Something as simple as a green Post-It on the desk can do the trick. If you’re handy, make a mock “The Doctor Is Out” sign. With these whimsical touches, it’ll be easy to have a casual chat with him and get his agreement to respect these limits.

Cheers,

Q

 

French are Romantic, Chinese are Sentimental

When discussing cultural differences in love, a friend (who has ample experience) once summed it up nicely: “The French are romantic while the Chinese are sentimental.”

I can’t think of a better way to put it. When I was sixteen, studying in France for the summer, I fell in love with my nineteen-year-old French neighbor. Actually I fell in “like”, but his sweeping romantic gestures and dramatic language – tossing “amour, amour” around all the time – whirled me up in my first French “love” affair.

His English was patchy and my French was only slightly better, but I could comprehend that the flowery lines of poetry he scribbled and the phrases he breathed while looking into my eyes intensely and managing to keep a straight face were things that would be simply…cheesy in any other language.

Alas, I was young and excited by the romantic novelty, so I overlooked the little things. Like how he never offered to buy my movie ticket all summer long. Nor did he bother to call or write after I left. My first French love affair ended quite abruptly after an over-the-top goodbye scene, complete with a rustic country house, an overgrown garden, and my lover’s promises that for a “longtemps” he would see me “walking through his dreams.”

When I got older, I found myself losing interest in this kind of romantic flair and craving the subtle sentiment of the Chinese. A “good Chinese man” is not one for words. Until this decade, he shuddered at words like “dear”, “honey”, and “love”, finding them bourgeois and vapidly unrealistic. But a Chinese man will work on the little things. He will work hard.

My college Chinese boyfriend once saw me fill a glass of water to keep on the night stand before going to bed and remorsefully told me, “I’m sorry, it should be my job to take care of these things.” He meant that as his girl, I shouldn’t have to look after my own comfort, especially not on a small thing like hydration. My Chinese boyfriend was never good at making romantic promises, but each time he took me to the airport he would put a thick envelop in my hand as we said goodbye. On the plane, I would open it up to find funny stories he had written to keep me entertained onboard. For years, my Chinese boyfriend nurtured our love with his countless small tendernesses, like biking out on a cold day to buy a hot water bottle that kept me warm when I studied in the cold library that night.

This contrast between French romance and Chinese sentiment makes me wonder – what, then, is the American approach to love? I can best describe it as a straightforward kind of pragmatism. Look at it with cynical eyes and you might feel that American girls have it worst. Chivalry is “out” after the feminist movement, but true equality is not yet “in.” Flowery romance is not “macho” enough for the American man and sentiment is simply not practical. My American boyfriend asked me, “Why should I get you a glass of water? Why don’t you get it yourself?”

But there are plenty of good things about this “no BS” kind of love that is in between romance and sentiment. An American man won’t pledge to dream of you walking through a field of poppies every night, nor is he eager to jump on fetching your water for as long as you’re alive, but he will stick by your side and try in earnest to make you happy in his straightforward way.

I’ve seen plenty of passionate French unions dissolve with the simple shrug of a shoulder and a “I fell in love with someone else” by way of explanation (Nicolas and Cecilia Sarkozy, to take a famous example). Just as many tender loving Chinese boyfriends turn into philandering middle-aged husbands who have an unspoken free pass to “socialize” because it has become some kind of socio-economic developmental norm to do so. Although the lead in to an American commitment and marriage can be a long awkward dance — “Is it too early to bring him home for Thanksgiving?” or “When is he going to pop the question?” – once committed, the American man takes loyalty seriously (American politicians excepted).

So what of all this philosophizing about love? In the end, it’s different strokes for different folks and to each his own. When I was living my global love experiment before finding my favorite cultural-romantic mutt (the husband), my good friend often advised me, “Just do what makes you happy.” True enough, whether it’s romance, sentiment, or pragmatism, just go with whatever floats your boat. Live, love, and be happy!

The Trouble With My Last Name

I often complain about how difficult it is to have a rare character for a last name. Nobody (Chinese or foreign) can say it properly. Few know how to write it. And I often get topped at airport check-in. This excerpt below from a fascinating book (“East Look West See”), published in Chinese by Zhai Hua, explains better than I can the trouble with my last name. I sought and happily received permission from Zhai Hua to translate and publish this portion on my blog. Hope you enjoy the read! If you want to read more of his works, visit http://blog.sina.com.cn/zhaihua

Translated excerpt from “East Look West See” by Zhai Hua

My last name is “Zhai” – it reads “zhái”, not “qū.” From kindergarten onwards, people with the last name “Zhai” get used to others mispronouncing or writing this rare name wrongly. “Zhai” is often mistaken for “Qu”, “Cui”, “Huo”, or “Yao.” “Zhai”, with its fourteen character strokes, also brings its bearer the least advantage when it comes to Chinese alphabetical ordering. I remember going up for election to the Student Council at Tsinghua University and seeing my name at the bottom of the ballot. At that time, I really envied a Politburo member named “Ding.” Each time the Politburo names were announced, “Ding” came right after Chairman Mao (1).

When I left China to study abroad, my last name was still no help. I was again at the bottom of every alphabetical listing because few foreign last names start with the letter “Z.” One year, I went on a work mission to Myanmar as a UN specialist. I had sent a prior fax informing my counterparties that a “Mr. Zhai” would arrive on so and so day. When I got to Yangon airport, the Burmese who came to pick me up regarded me with perplexity: “We thought the visiting specialist would be an Arab!”

“Why would you think that?” I asked.

“Your fax spelled out ‘Zhai’, which we took as a typo for ‘Zahi’”, they replied.

My last name turned out to be equally unfortunate in France. The French have no idea how to handle the “zh” sound (2), so I was constantly referred to as a cross between “Zai” and “Cai.” I tried to correct this, teaching the French to curl their tongues to make the “Zhai” sound. I almost succeeded, but one day, a French student came to question me: “You say your last name is pronounced as ‘Je-ai-zhai’, but how come your Chinese classmates call you ‘Zai’?” It dawned on me that my Cantonese classmate (3) (who is now a high ranking official) had ruined my name. The French often say, “No one loves the Kingdom more than the King does.” If my compatriots can’t even say my name properly, why force the foreigners to try? I abandoned my effort and let people call me as they please.

In the 1980’s, many Chinese needed to keep the telegraph code (TC) for their last names handy. With so many homonyms in Chinese and foreigners not reading Chinese characters, visa offices sometimes required applicants to write the TC on their forms. I remember visiting the consular section of the British Embassy. They gave me a manual to look up the TC for my last name. I was to write “5049” under the letters “zhai” on my application form, to avoid being confused for someone else. A few days later, a British official notified me to come to the embassy again because I had written the wrong TC. How could this be? I had carefully copied the TC, how could it be wrong?

I thought the culprit might have been the fact that the character “Zhai” has two pronunciations. One is “dí” and the other is “zhái,” which could have well confounded the Brits. Whether or not this was the true reason, the officer who met with me bought the story. By the time I got to the UK, I learned that the British no longer required Chinese to provide the TC for their names. Thank goodness for that!

When the character “Zhai” is read as “zhái”, it is a last name; when it is read as “dí”, it references a long-tailed creature […]. If you try to buy airplane tickets in China under the last name “Zhai”, the aviation industry computers can only print your name on a boarding pass by inputting it as “dí.” But this way, the English spelling of the last name on the boarding pass becomes “Di” and doesn’t match the “Zhai” spelling in your passport. Every time airport ground staff check my boarding pass and ID, I have to explain to them that my last name has two different pronunciations, which their system can’t differentiate. This is the best I can do. Strictly speaking, the airline can refuse to let me board the plane. I sincerely hope that one day Air China will fix this systemic loophole into which I keep falling. Every time I make a ticket reservation, I request that they print out the correct English and Chinese names, but the sales agent always shrugs, “”There’s nothing I can do.” To Air China’s ticketing software, “Zhai” is “dí.” If I want to change it, I have to approach “the appropriate authorities.”

Failing to find “appropriate authorities,” it’s still within my power to answer the reader’s question: Who am I?

Footnotes:
1 Chinese alphabetical order goes by the number of strokes. The character “Ding” has only two strokes, placing its bearer at the top of any alphabetical list.
2 “Zh” makes a “j” sound in Chinese
3 Cantonese and other southern Chinese have a different enunciation of certain words than northerners, most notably they make less differentiation between sounds like “zh” and “z”, “ch” and “c”, “sh” and “s”, etc.

Split Pants, the Anti-Diaper

When I arrived in Beijing in the fall, a friend was just leaving. On her last day, her Facebook status bar read, “Farewell to…publicly urinating babies!”

She’s not the first to complain about the “split pants” phenomenon. If you’ve been to China, especially poorer parts of it, then you’ve seen plenty of baby bottoms mooning you from under crotchless pants. Sometimes these overexposed babies are toddling around the sidewalk spontaneously squatting down for a pee. Other times their mothers are holding their legs open and whistling up a storm (“Xuuuuu, xuuuu”) as a stream of natural fertilizer hits the nearest tree.

The ubiquitous baby moon


What’s up with that? Why do Chinese parents relieve their kids in public and what’s whistling got to do with it? I looked into it (not literally) and found that split pants — or “kaidangku” (literally “open crotch pants”) — are no simple matter. Not so much a fashion choice, they have more to do with tradition, income, and the environment.

Google isn’t much help when it comes to “split pants.” Your top hits will lead you to a Youtube video of some poor kid named Alice bending over to pick something up, a SpongeBob SquarePants song, and pictures of Brad chivalrously covering up Angie’s leather-clad behind on the red carpet. Apparently Chinese baby bottoms aren’t that relevant in online searches.

I’ll have to draw from memory to explain the intended function of split pants. Chinese parents put their kids into these pants with holes cut into the middle at the ages of one to three. The idea is to give toddlers the convenience of squatting down anywhere, anytime, without soiling their clothes, while avoiding a diaper rash (from traditional cloth diapers) on a hot day. I find this sensible enough, given Chinese attitudes about waste (imagine people who keep the plastic covers on their sofas for years throwing out thick bundles of disposable diapers daily).

So it’s a tradition, but it is unsightly and unhygienic in an urban setting, where baby poop may be sitting on the sidewalk for days (or worse, get stuck to somebody’s leather soles). Before you hate on the split pants, consider that it’s a greener alternative than disposable diapers.

The cloth versus disposable diaper debate has been going on in America ever since Pampers showed up on supermarket shelves in 1961. The diaper industry maintains that cloth diapers are just as damaging to the environment as their fancy products. Yes, cleaning cloth diapers uses up water and electricity, but I find it hard to believe that two extra loads of household laundry every week outdoes the disposable diaper factories. Additionally, disposables are 70% made of trees (more than 200,000 trees a year, in fact) and 30% of petroleum. When they’re used up, they add to landfills and can contaminate water supplies. Even without statistics, you can intuit how much waste a single-use disposable diaper generates compared to a cloth diaper, which can be used on average 75 times.

So what about “green diapers”? In 1981, American mommies and daddies could buy “biodegradable” diapers for the first time, but there is still no evidence to back up the environmental claim. Nothing really biodegrades in a landfill for lack of adequate exposure to oxygen and sunlight. The reincarnation process for these supposedly “green” disposables is probably a few hundred years.

After reading that the average American baby goes through 5000 diapers before being potty trained, I made up my mind to swathe my future children in cloths. I’ll at least give the natural method a try before reaching for Pampers. (I still haven’t made up my mind about split pants though – perhaps there’s a more aesthetic way to raise earth babies?). When I tried to find out more on proper use of cloth diapers, I discovered fervent proponents on the internet, mostly outside of China. There are countless websites that discuss “traditional” potty training techniques and attire (including split pants), and parents debate the issue as hotly as right wingers defend their right to own guns.

I finally found my way to a reliable source, the “the pee and poop guru”. Ingrid Bauer is the author of the definitive guide to diaperless child rearing and coined the term “elimination communication” (EC). EC describes traditional methods of potty training babies (starting as early as birth) and draws from cultures as far ranging as Indian and Italian. The idea is to avoid diapers as much as possible, if not entirely.

The most active bulletin boards on EC and split pants I found are run by American mothers who adopted Chinese babies. Many of them were shocked to find that the 9-month olds they brought home could find their way to the potty and “go” on command. Others were appalled by the split pants they saw at orphanages and put their adoptees in disposable diapers ASAP. The most interesting thing I learned about EC is that “cueing” is an essential part of the method. The cue for babies to relieve themselves is usually a whistling or a clucking of the tongue by the caretaker. Aha! This explains why Chinese mothers whistle while holding out their bare-bottomed babies to pee in public!

Next time you see a split pant-wearing baby in China (this is getting rarer and rarer as Proctor & Gamble take over the market) you might instinctively wrinkle your nose in disgust. But think also about the environmental benefits of these children’s unsightly attire, consider the affordability of disposable diapers for average Chinese parents, and read up a little on schools of toilet training thought. There are plenty of greenies and earth mothers out there who will make a better case for the split pant than I can!

Yogathoner

When I heard about Yogathon 2009 I thought it was brilliant. Wokai , a young microfinance fundraiser non-profit that I had just read about in the papers, was putting on the event and I could spend a day in the ultra hip ‘798’ art district pushing my “downward dog” with friends. Proceeds from our tickets would benefit Wokai’s microlending partners in Sichuan and Inner Mongolia. I’d get to call myself some kind of “thoner” for charity (“marathoner” is too much of a stretch for me).

When I signed up online I eagerly clicked the “8 hour practice” option. All the Yogathon practice and music sessions looked interesting and it cost less than a single Bikram session would in Beijing!

On Saturday, I got dropped off at the gate and walked around the sprawling 798 campus looking for the T Arts center. Along the way, I passed old factory buildings still bearing Maoist slogans in fading white paint. Their external facades were made of red brick, the way they were built thirty years ago, but the interiors were now glossy art galleries.

The all-white T Arts Center was a few blocks down on Road #2. With its cheerful red “Illy” sign, clusters of deck umbrellas outside, and modern construction, it looked like an Ian Schrager hotel, but a “Yogathon” sign outside indicated I was in the right place.

Inside, a Wokai volunteer greeted me enthusiastically. It was just ten-thirty and sixty or so people had already arrived, taking up position on yoga mats laid out in rows. The bright cavernous interior of T Arts Center was perfectly set up. A large triptych painting in pink provided an aesthetic back drop for the instructors up front. Even the path to the bathroom was a tour of the current exhibit of oil paintings.

As I settled into my mat I realized that I had underestimated the cold. This was no Bikram studio. Yogi’s all around me were braving it in fleece jackets and outerwear. As the mats filled up, the day kicked off with a session of traditional sun salutations. This was basic stuff that I’d countless times, but the resonance of a hundred voices chanting “Om” in unison and two hundred arms reaching up to the sky was uniquely uplifting.

Following the two-hour session, a band took the stage while yogi’s mat-hopped to greet their friends. It was kind of like camp for do-gooding grown ups (or it’s what I imagine camp is like since I’ve never been to camp!). There were devoted yogi’s, Chinese and foreign, milling about. Freelancers, ex-investment bankers, study abroad students, musicians, photographers, accountants, volunteers, organizers, just about every kind of sun saluter with a social conscience you can imagine!

The break was followed by a challenging session, including binds and birds of paradise postures. As journalists and photographers busily captured these fanciful poses, I conquered my personal yoga Everest. I’ve dreamt about springing up into a handstand in the middle of a room the way mountaineers dream about scaling unforgiving peaks. Anna, a charismatic instructor who had just come in from LA (and taught her class while wearing a parka), went about teaching us how to do a handstand without the help of a wall as if it were as easy as one-two-three. It sounded so simple the way she demonstrated with a volunteer. If I followed her instructions, my spotting partner would be little more than a safety net. I would just lift my legs up and, voila, the handstand would happen. I was excited to try it out, but could it be that simple? I’ve tried it so many times before and it never “just happened.”

With ninety-nine other floundering yogi’s in the room I could put aside the fear of embarrassing myself. I got into position, heard my partner give me the go-ahead, and up I went! It really did just happen. My partner gave me the support of a finger to tip me into balance, but after that, it was all me. No walls, no halfway ups, just a strong tall handstand all by myself. When I came down I was on such a yoga high that I zipped across the room to tell everyone what I just did. My heart wouldn’t stop beating from the exhilaration for a long time after.

At lunch time, I watched a presentation byARDY, a Wokai partner who administers microloans, and by Sara Ho, a Beijing-based business development manager for Wokai. Sara shared her story of traveling to a remote village where she met a little girl, the daughter of a borrower. When Sara asked her, “What do you want to do when you grow up”, the girl burst into tears. This simple retelling moved me to understand what Wokai is working with. Real poverty is when a ten-year-old child carries the despair and worry of an adult, not daring to dream or hope for the future. This is what I hope I have contributed to changing, in a small way, by being at Yogathon today.

The tempo and heat picked up in the afternoon. Matthew, a Kabir and Rumi-quoting burly guy who could drop into a perfect split instantaneously, led a crew of Beijing’s best yoga teachers to show us partner yoga techniques. This got people moving around, getting to know their mat neighbors, and learning to deepen each other’s practices. A mellow band added to the warm buzz with their acoustic guitar and bongo drums.

I checked my watch and realized that I had sat through six hours of yoga, but probably only actively practiced for four. I was already tired and sore. I decided to pack up, content to call myself a “half yogathoner,” and I was dying to try handstands wall-free again at home. When I left it was already dark outside, but inside, the T Arts Center was still aglow with the warmth of happy people and happy sounds doing good for their bodies and good for the world.

*Find out more about Wokai

Dear Q: Bad Love

Dear Q,

Do you, or should you, forgive a guy who got drunk and for no reason lashed out at his girlfriend, yanking her hair and punching her. She now has bruises and bumps on the back of her head, and some bruising on the forehead. It’s not the first time he has had violent tendencies. Can anger be managed or is anger something that can’t be helped and she should just call it quits? She likes him but now the relationship is getting dangerous.

Signed,

Concerned Friend

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Dear Concerned Friend,

Thank you for bringing a serious matter to light. It saddens me that this year much media and public attention shone on domestic / relationship abuse, but no clear answer or role models have emerged from the experience. After the sensational news reporting of leaked photos showing Rihanna’s battered face, there was no strong media consensus condemning Chris Brown, nor was the legal sentence severe. Instead, we saw more paparazzi photos of Chris and Rihanna reconciling, Chris jeering at the cameras atop his jet ski (as if he needed a tropical holiday), and Chris assuming other obnoxious postures in public. Where was his remorse? Where was the punishment? Where was the message to women that they should not tolerate relationship violence? The reactions of music fans, especially the younger ones, shocked me. Men and women alike seemed to think that she must’ve done something to “deserve” a beating. Let me set the record straight, in however small a way. There is no justification for physical violence. Ever. And it will happen again. Perhaps the boyfriend’s anger can be helped, but it’s not going to happen without some concerted and professional help. Going back to a guy who is repeatedly violent just keeps him in a power position and perpetuates the same behavior. He’s not going to just wake up one day as a reformed man, especially not if your friend continues putting up with him. Forgiveness – always a virtue – is one thing, but staying in an abusive relationship is never a good idea. Help her, if she can’t help herself. Information on seeking help, http://www.ncadv.org/protectyourself/GettingHelp.php.

Best,

Q