Globalization: Zumba in China

I have always been a dancer whether in a class or on a field or in a club or at a wedding or in my living room with my three sons; it all has depended on my life stage and location. So now that I am beyond the clubbing age (not that I was much of one to go clubbing, but I certainly enjoyed tropical dancing at salsa clubs during my two years of grad school in Mexico!), how do I get my dancing fix? Sometimes my latin-blooded husband will graciously dance with me at home after the kids go to bed, which makes me muy contenta (very happy). But in between those twice a year occurrences, I have discovered that I can go tropical dancing at least every Wednesday night at the fitness club that is a 15 minute bike ride away. Because there is Zumba in Wuhan, China.

Zumba in China is one of the many unexpected pleasantries of globalization. Companies can have their products designed, produced, and marketed in multiple countries across the world because of the internet, large pools of cheap labor, and global marketing and transport. Zumba, created by a Columbian, is now in 185 countries and is easy to market because its music and videos can be accessed online by any instructor. Their products, like shoes and clothing, are probably manufactured in China, the workshop of the world. And so here I am, following a young Chinese man dressed in a chartreuse muscle shirt that says “Salsation” on the back, and who has baggy black parachute pants with one pant leg up to his knee like he is a hip hop dancer. He teaches us salsa, merengue, and a little reggaeton. Que chevere (how cool). Check out this video:

Did you see the cute non-Asian lady waving? That is my French friend with whom I speak Spanish. She is also a mom, and in class she sings along to the Spanish lyrics of songs in our Zumba class that we each danced to in our college years on different continents. Now both of us are in Asia dancing along in a class filled with mostly Chinese women. This is globalization.
Zumba Class

A Chinese Village Turns to Rubble

For several years we would hear rumors that the old village down the street from our apartments would be knocked down. The Houshayu village would soon share the fate of the many others taken over by eminent domain as Beijing expands. It is true that there will be a better use of space: an apartment building with ten stories can obviously house more people than old, dilapidated, one story buildings. And services like water and electricity will be fully available to the new tenants. Each apartment will have one or even two bathrooms which is much better than the public bathrooms that the old houses shared. But when poor people are forced out of their homes, it is still heart breaking. Click on this link for a bumpy ride through an old village and then into the rubble:

Well, finally it happened. Last Spring the fleets of bulldozers and other heavy machinery arrived to push down the brick and concrete. Once complete, the village looked like a wasteland. Only the modern office building, built just a few years before in anticipation of the area's modernization, rises up out of the rubble.
Houshayu rubble with office building rising out
Bricks stacked
Above you can see how people have come and salvaged the bricks from the buildings.

In a few years this main strip will be unrecognizable. Until then, they have put up nice canvases with advertisements showing green grass, blue skies, and an attractive lady blowing a butterfly. This hides the dusty rubble, gray sky, and old men collecting construction materials to recycle.

My Neighbor: A Chinese Pro-Democracy Professor turned Millionaire Entrepeneur

Our Chinese neighbors invited us to go cherry picking with them before we moved from Beijing last summer. This was the first time we had gone on an outing with them, although we had always been friendly in the hall, and on occasion I asked for translation help. We met them in 2011 when we first moved to our apartment at Vanke City Garden, a commuter housing development about 15 minute drive from the Beijing International Airport. At the time, their daughter Sarah was three years old and their son, Michael was a two month old chubby cutie. The mom and kids were in the Beijing apartment for a few months and then moved back to Canada. Will, the dad, resides here in China but frequently visits his family in Canada. This is a common routine for wealthy Chinese families who have foreign visas and are establishing foreign citizenship in other countries but maintain business in China.
Our Vanke Apartment building
Our apartment building in northern Beijing housing about 860 people.

After a year and a half, Lisa (the mom), Sarah, and little Michael were back to their apartment in Beijing so Sarah could start school at the International School of Beijing, the most expensive international school around at 20,000 USD per year (check it out which only admits foreign passport holders. Will does not work for a multinational firm which will pay for their expat families to send their children to the international schools, nor does Will have a foreign passport. He told me that to maintain his Chinese business and government connections, he must remain a Chinese citizen. Will owns his own high end window business and has other real estate investments. Obviously he was able to afford the school tuition, and his daughter had Canadian citizenship. This is when we began to figure out that the our neighbor, who lived in the same size 1000 square foot flat as us (which goes for the inflated bubble Beijing property price of 400,000 USD to purchase, and we paid 800 USD a month to rent), was very wealthy. Later it was explained to me that this was just one of the many properties which Will owned.

As we picked cherries and managed tree climbing kids, I asked about his work. Our conversations in the past have been the length of shared elevator rides or a quick chat in the hallway. He kindly brought us moon cakes during October Moon Festival and two remote control cars (one very large and one small) for our boys. He said the business was up and down, but doing okay. Since the global recession he had lost some of his international business but now is gaining more domestic business as China’s public and private sectors have more to spend. He shared that he was not after making a lot of money like some Chinese businessmen or government officials who sacrifice the environment to make their cut.

Will quickly gave me a brief professional history, which started June 4, 1989. He used to be a professor and was involved in the Tianamen Square marches to call for democracy in China, and also present when the Chinese troops came and started shooting into crowds and arresting students. “I almost died, and then I got kicked out of the university.” Woa. I did not expect this to be on his resume, nor expect to hear the Tianamen square topic from any mainland Chinese person. We foreigners are coached not to bring this up, and the event is not in Chinese school books. I wonder where the rest of those pro democracy demonstrators have ended up?
Tito on Tianamen
Above is my middle son standing in the biggest public square in the world: Tianamen Square bordered by Federal Government buildings behind.

To change the subject, Will quickly went on to explain that afterwards he left the country to visit his sister in Germany; there he saw the quality style of the windows there. So he created a Chinese window brand similar to the German one and began his business. His sister and brother joined him in the business, but now they have opted out. He says that he is the big brother so he cannot quit. Will has also started to go into real estate and is helping to develop the land just north of the nearby American east coast style and managed boarding school, Keystone Academy, which is under construction and set to open in the Fall of 2014 ( This school has been established so wealthy Chinese do not have to send their children overseas to boarding schools but can keep them in country.

As a parting gift Will gave us a brand new Sony camera, which to us was an extravagant one from someone we did not know very well. I had to get advice about this from a Chinese friend, because to be polite I would need to return the favor with a gift, but I could not afford to do this. I already had a camera, but it would be very rude of me to not accept the camera, and to him it was a small gift and an appropriate gesture in his gift-giving and favor granting culture. I kept it, thanked him, and then later gave it to a friend who did not have one.

You never really know who your neighbor is in China. Mine turned out to be a pro-democracy leader turned window company millionaire.

Shine and Shopping

My previous post showed rustic shopping conditions for the strong stomached-shoppers. This post shows the opposite: this is the shine of marble and glass of the Wanda shopping mall just down the street from the alleys where you have the local shops. There is a Wal Mart, McDonald’s, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and KFC. Mind you, those chain stores are a bit more high class here than in the U.S. Starbucks of course maintains the coffee sophistication here… again, a little bit higher because it also has the equivalent U.S. price and is a splurge for Chinese tea drinkers.
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The sleek marble floors, attractive hanging decorations, and modern design represents just how China is developing. There is a frenzy to put on the new, the modern, the classy. Building standards and structures are not quite as strong or quality underneath, though. The most expensive looking, two story homes still need frequent remodeling and repairs, still host a bit of sewer stench about mid-day due to non-S shaped plumbing, and still would not pass safety standards in the west.

I am thankful for the shine and shopping down the street, just a bike ride away. I limit my Wal Mart visits to times when I am simultaneously out of nuts for making granola, peanut butter, and canned cat food. That is all I can carry in my front bike basket anyway. I usually do not buy much at the other fancy shops because, for this mom of three boys on a budget, the shops are too expensive for me. And one is doubtful of the quality of products anyway. Why?! Everything is made in China, so why can’t I get good products? Everything is made quality for EXPORT. None of that stuff stays here. And if it comes back, it has to be imported back on a ship at a large mark up in price. China’s products for their domestic market are low quality. But little by little as the middle class grows here and the demand for quality increases, producers will have to improve their standards. Until then, we just wait to buy jeans at Costco (made in China) when we go back home to the U.S. for the summer.
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(In the electronics store, GoMe, watching Chinese Tennis champion Li Na win the Women's Australian Open on flat screen TVs.)

We have finally begun to buy some clothing at foreign chain stores. Those are the stores that are considered low to medium quality in their home countries but good quality here in China. We frequent a French sporting goods store called Decathlon where we know we can get clothes, equipment, and shoes that will last (at least through two boys). My French friend said that Decathlon is known for low quality products in France. We shop at a Japanese store called Uniqlo because the clothes there are well made and affordable. Someone who lived in Japan said that Uniqlo is a cheap store there. So is H&M, a Swedish company, or C&M, a Dutch company. But those are the stores where I go for quality clothes, and I am thankful that they are down the street (a 10 min taxi or bus ride) as opposed to an hour away when we lived in Beijing. And they are in a shiny shopping mall.

Knickers and Jerky

Wuhan and Beijing have some differences, but both have their rough parts that are not shiny like the modern new buildings and cars. For example, not all shopping takes place in clean supermarkets or malls. Going to the local wet market or stationary stores are always cheaper and much more interesting. Those are the places where you can see the old ways of China hanging out. For example, you go to the market and there are fish heads on a crate appearing to look for their customers.

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This is the stall right next to the colorfully displayed fruit and down the aisle from the inexpensive veggies that the buyers will chop and stir fry that day. Another example is going to a local curtain maker and outside his store is a hanger drying someone’s panties and bra. But no one cares because it is normal. For the Frenchwomen I took to get their curtains done, it was a thought through their minds that there was a bra and panty set drying, perhaps, but these middle aged women have lived internationally before. So had my other new friend, an Irish woman, but of course she was the one to make the comment. “Well, if we were anywhere else, seeing someone’s knickers outside the store would tell you that it wasn’t the best of establishments.” But hanging knickers is no knock on the good business taking place on the inside. We were all very happy with our curtains.

Everyone hangs their laundry outside in the summer and on sunny days the year round here in Wuhan. In Beijing they did the same, but most clothes drying patios were covered. Here, there are covered patios as well, but people have the most ingenious retracting racks that are bolted outside and below the windows. I love mine: I can dry clothes out where the breeze evaporates the wetness in no time. Anyways, there is a dry spell in winter about a month before Chinese New Year, and I noticed many people hanging meat off their drying racks.
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Yes, meat, and it’s salted. So there are open fish with scales and fins but no bones or guts. There are gutted chickens, pig feet, and sausages. Mind you, these hanging hunks of meat are alongside the drying clothes. My friend told me that the Ye Ye (grandpa) of the house has been salting the meat in a bucket under the sink since the summer, and now that the weather is dry, sunny and cold, the slabs of meat are hung out to dry in the day. It will soon be Chinese New Year jerky.

There you have it: the old China ways hanging out. Knickers and jerky out to dry, and sometimes side by side.
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Eliot and the Chinese Language

Two days ago my two youngest were sitting on the couch, face to face, yelling at each other: Eliot (5 years old) sitting on pillows on top of Theo (almost two years old) yelling “ tao ye” (dummy in Chinese) at him, then Theo yells back in what is his Chinese babbling (different from Spanish babbling because there is more up and down tones). I walk in to see why they are yelling, and then Eliot says in Spanish "tu eres muy bonito, Teo" (you are very cute, Theo). Hmm… he obviously understood that mommy’s presence meant that you better change your tone and words with your little brother. And even your language, apparently.

While at the kids’ school’s Sports Day a few weekends ago, I went to say hello to Eliot. As I approached, I could see that he was interacting with Stephanie, one of his Chinese classmates. He speaks to all his classmates in Chinese as most of them are Chinese whose English language is at a pre-production level. I observed him for a while, and then greeted him in English or Spanish. I had to say it more than once because he was in his Chinese language world in which I do not belong, so he was ignoring me. I made him recognize me, and then I left him to his school world.

My mom came to China today for a three week visit. Eliot and his brothers are so thrilled to have their grandma, who speaks only English, here. A curious thing happened this evening, though: Eliot, who usually speaks in Spanish with his dad, asked if he could have some milk in the Chinese language. Now, he has never spoken in Chinese to Manuel nor does Manuel understand much Chinese, so Eliot was obviously showing off in front of Oma!

Eliot is definitely proud that he speaks such great Chinese. He even went out to our community play area with his big brother, who he speaks English to, and after seeing some other neighborhood Chinese kids he spoke very loudly in Chinese to Aaron, “we speak Chinese too, right?” The Chinese language is part of our dear Eliot, and he wants people to know it!

Pictured beloe is Eliot in the hat with his brother Aaron and Aaron’s classmates. They were hiking around the Great Wall in as the first Spring blossoms where blooming.
Eliot is with the hat

The Village Market and a Drive Thru

Today I buckled my almost two year old into his baby seat on the back of my bike and we started off to the village market that, with its village knocked down last year, was wisely left standing. There will be ten times the people around eventually because they one story brick village homes will be replaced by ten story high rise apartments (not quite the 20 story buildings of inside the 4th ring). Right now, the established apartments are here, and the construction workers have their temporary white two story barracks with blue roofs near-by, so everyone still needs a place to shop. There are still plenty of customers.
Shuangyu Market

Because I am illiterate in Chinese, I depend on my observation skills when I shop at the market. What’s in the window at that store? What is in this little stall? It takes time to nose around the one hundred or so stalls and shops in the market. Sometimes you find treasure. I found masking tape at the hardware store, which does not exist in grocery stores and so I concluded did not exist in China. So you can imagine my excitement, three years into my stint in Beijing, to find masking tape. It takes a long ime to get to know where things are. And now I know where to get just about anything around my little part of Beijing. And that is a huge accomplishment.

One will find food, tools, sundries, and services at the market. There is a meat section with pork, a small halal beef and mutton shop, and the chicken guys. I personally like the pork butchery in the winter because you know the meat remains cold all day long. It is also an excellent place for a biology lesson. My four year old was with me one day and saw pig heads, hearts, intestines and them being stuffed with ground meat, hooves, ears, and a bunch of meat lying and hanging. This indeed would be a vegetarian’s nightmare, but for a mom with a tough stomach, it is a unique opportunity to talk anatomy with my little boy. And to observe the bored stall owner’s practicing their shuttle cock (badmitton) game in the aisle. Hope that shuttlecock does not get caught in a carcass.

My kids like the pet shops because the birds and rabbits and chipmunks (yes, Alvin, Simon, and Theodore were cooped up in a cage waiting to be sold) are generally adorable. Across the way are the fish stalls where there are usually some headless fish for sale in a bin on the steps, and a couple of the live ones inevitably jump out of their holding tanks and splatter and slap around on the wet concrete floor. The black rubber-booted owner slowly walks over, grabs a net, scoops up that escapee, and flops them back into the tank. My baby enjoys seeing the fish out of water.
The chicken shop is fascinating as well: there are whole chickens black or white, chicken parts, frozen bags of chicken, and they have great service. Houshayu Chicken GuyOnce I bought a whole chicken (including head and feet) and I asked the chicken butcher to cut it up for me. I imagined that he’d cut it at the leg, breast, thigh, etc. First he has to remove the eggs inside; there are several in different stages of gestation. He asked me if I want them, and I probably could have said yes but I was a bit shocked about their presence and fascinated to see the different stages. With no previous chicken chopping experience, I was caught off guard, and even though I felt bad for being wasteful, I declined the eggs. Cool though. My kids thought the head and feet were cool when I brought them home: they wanted them on a plate to poke at them. And one eye winked- I guess they caught a nerve as they were poking its head. Chicken head and feet

Then there are some clothing stalls. There is one shop that carries western size women’s pants (there is no way that we can fit into skinny Chinese lady pants) from the factories. There are also ever changing toys shops or shoe stalls. It especially smells of plastic in that shoe place; not a trace of leather in any of them. And I just bought a pair of lovely blue fake crocs for my son’s inside school shoes. Having inside school shoes makes perfect sense to me now; if you saw what everyone might walk around on outside, you would understand why people take their shoes off when they get inside.

There is also the vegetable building and fruit building, the seafood section where Eliot likes to see live crabs, the alcohol (bai jiou) shops, the noodle shops, the fabric stalls… talk about everything in one place .Baijiou
guy pulling noodles
Veggie building You just have to go from building to building and stall to stall to buy your wares. If I have the time, I like the market because of the prices and the interactions with people. Additionally, it is one less step away from a commercial grocery store where you can distance yourself from the animal, vegetables, and the people who sell them. Sometimes it takes too long though, unless, of course, you do drive thru shopping.

Today I conducted drive thru shopping as I visited three shops, and I did not even get off my bike. This works when people know you at the shops, you know the Chinese word of what you are looking for, you know the prices already, and you have a toddler on your bike who cannot possibly be let loose and who the shop owners think is cute.

I biked to the restaurant supply shop and asked for laundry soap: she put the orange Tide 1.3 Kg bags in my basket, took the money, and gave me change. My toddler wanted in on the money exchange so I gave him a 1 RMB bill to satisfy. I pedaled a couple more feet to the door of the bean/flour/oil shop. Still on my bike at the doorway, I asked for long rice, and I didn’t know how much to ask for so I just asked for 20 RMB worth. She scooped it for me into a plastic bag, weighed it, and then took my money and gave me change. She asked my toddler in English what his name is. He didn’t say anything, but at least he did not say “bu yao” which his favorite Chinese phrase meaning “don’t want”. Then a few more feet past the plant and pet shops I stopped in the doorway of the pet food shop. “Ni hao” I called, and the shop ownerlady appeared. I asked for cat litter, she held up the products and I confirmed which one, I paid the 15 RMB, and she arranged the bag with the other ones in my front bike basket. She even got an extra plastic bag to place my rice in so that she could tie it to my handle bars. Now that’s customer service!

I love market shopping, especially when it’s drive thru.

Spring in Beijing: Good to be Lao Wai

Today would make you want to move straight away to Beijing: the Spring weather includes blue and sunny skies, the scents of lilac from the trees, the gorgeous spring blooms. In a matter of weeks, Beijing has come alive from a dreary, brown and gray, chilly environment to a lively one that has kids spilling out of their homes after being cooped up all winter. The sun even wants to get out of bed earlier: it is up at 4:45am!
Tracy and Theo on the bike
Today I took my toddler for a bike ride though rural space close to our apartment that is slowly being encroached upon by suburban sprawl. Mind you, the suburbs consist of nine story apartment buildings, not exactly the one story sprawl of for car-designed U.S. suburbs. For the four years we’ve been here, half of the fields are now construction sights. The rest are still tree farms and or villages in the process of being knocked down to make way for high rise apartment complexes. So along the way to some of the tree fields, through which are paved roads used for drivers’ training courses, we saw two front diggers and stopped to watch. Pure entertainment for a two year old!
Biking through our forest
Then after a cruise through “el bosque” (as we sometimes Spanish speakers call the pseudo-forest) we heard a screaming commotion on the other side of the street. Like a good Chinese, I stopped and stared. If I were a better Chinese then I would cross the street and look on close up.

There were two women yelling and screaming and even hitting a group of about ten men outside a store that was starting to get knocked down, no doubt imminent domain. The shops just down the street had been there just a week ago and are no longer, so I imagined that these women were the last to hold on to their store. Maybe they were yelling, “get out, you can’t knock down my shop! I worked my ___ off to build this up! The money you have given me for the move is not enough! Here, I’ll get you with this steel metal pole!” Anyways, the police showed up, the ladies went back in the shop, and I did not stay any longer to see what happened next because I could not understand anyway. Instead, we biked down to a upscale housing development, rode right into it because we are Lao Wai (light skinned westerners) and were not asked why we were walking around their beautifully landscaped lake.

So, today is a good example of the advantages of being a Lao Wai in Beijing because you can gain access to elite places and people. It is also an example of how it can be a disadvantage to be a middle aged Chinese woman who is getting her shop knocked down.
What the ladies should have done to defend their shop! The cannons are fake, but impressive. Image from

Friends Back Home and Friends in this Home

Today I feel bipolar- up and down and up- which is how I sometimes feel when I speak to someone back home in the U.S. I am elated to talk to them but feel that pit of missing in my stomach. My dear sister in law will have a small birthday party for her baby son’s first birthday, and I will miss it. I got off the phone with her feeling jealous of the time she will spend with other mommies, also my old neighborhood friends. Then I got through the day of homeschooling without losing it with my six year old and four year old, and we prepared for a good-bye dinner with new friends who will leave Beijing for the Philippines. Last night I said to Manuel, in my honest insecurities, “It is cool of them to want to hang out with us.” They started a foster home for the blind, for goodness sake! And who are we?

We had a laughter filled dinner with our new friends, and their kids and ours played so well. I shared that we were thankful to have spent time with them since meeting in February, and that we were sorry that we had not made it out to see their foster home that was so much a part of them. They said that they were thankful to have someone who just knows them as Guillaume and Delphine, not the founders of Bethel. They appreciated our friendship because we are very real and open. This comment reminded me that we are all someone because God has made us so. We may have not opened a foster home, and they have, but we are all created just as God wants us to be, and we must be excellent stewards of that. My heart was full of new friendship tonight, even though just this afternoon I felt an empty spot where I miss old friendships in the U.S.

As I write I am watching the video- starting and stopping- of our foster daughter (and God daughter) walking and playing with her forever daddy a half a world away. Because of her, we now have new friends and family: the women and her foster agency, our dear Zhen Ayi, and of course the Voitier family who have adopted her and who are now our family. To see her puts butterflies in my stomach: I realize that I miss her. When Lily left us we had a hole in our hearts and we haven’t looked there for a while. We have covered it with busyness and of course the goings-on of our own family- especially because we also have a baby who is changing and such a joy to watch grow!

Today is a example of the ebbs and flows of friendship, love, missing, leaving, and looking forward to being reunited again.

Old Friends and New Friends

When you read that title, does a Girl Scout song come to mind? It goes like this, “Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other’s gold.” We left a lot of gold back in California (it is the golden state, after all!), and we have some silver, new friends here in Beijing.

Expats, the people who are working outside their home country, usually have a three to five year contract in China. This means that you make friends for a few years, and then they leave. This provides for a newness and dynamicism, but it does not give a lot of time for that golden friendship to develop. And you cannot wait too long to dig in to developing a friendship because an opportunity might be lost.

Now that it has been two and half years, we have had time to feel out relationships. We started strong with the only people we knew who we seemed to have lots in common with. But as time went by, our two families grew apart because of spending time with other friends, us having a baby and having more limited time, and other personal issues. Right before another friend was set to leave, we started to spend more time together. There have been other moms who have become my friends, but sometimes winter and transportation gets in the way, or our kids start to go to different schools, or in my case, I reverted to baby nap schedule again. I guess this is the same in all places, foreign country or not.

New-to-Beijing families take about one year to adjust to simply doing life, a huge task in itself. So people will start becoming “themselves” after a year or so. That’s when relationships can get strong, and they will most likely form where there is logistical overlap: children are the same age and go to the same school , same home country, living in the same neighborhood, and/ or going to the same church. The more overlap the more likely the connection. Otherwise, it just takes a bit more effort for a friendship. For example, I have a friend who will drive one to two hours to see her friend on the other side of Beijing because “their friendship means so much.”

Last winter a mom approached us to want to get together. I said, “wow, you are fast at adjusting!” because they had only been in Beijing for five months or so. Her U.S. state department family has just relocated from Botswana, and she replied, “Oh yes, we know how expat life works. There is no time to waste!” referring to her maximum four year Beijing assignment and limited time to found relationships. So new-to-expat life families will probably take one year to adjust, but it also depends on the difference in host country culture and the experience of expat living that a family has.