Thursday, November 27, 2008


So what is the hottest fashion item in China these days? Well, from what I observed it is t-shirts and bags with sayings on them in English. Have you noticed that in the past several years Chinese characters have become very popular as decoration in the USA? They adorn fabric, wallpaper, jewelry, and yes, t-shirts. Do we as English speakers know what these particular combinations of characters mean? Uh… no. Indeed, it has occurred to me that though I am sporting a shirt with what appears to me to be a beautiful example of Chinese calligraphy; I could very well be wearing a shirt that has something quite funny or even offensive written on it.

This also appears to be the case in China where random words and phrases are used as fashion statements. Sometimes they kind of make sense, like our guide Tracy wore one that said ”Dearly Wish To Be Perfect”. But mostly the words appear to be quite arbitrary and either makes no sense at all or could just be poor translations of what is trying to be communicated. Here are a few examples: “Baby Bumpy” and “Passion Active” and “Golden Snow” and “The Cute End Hopes To Be”. Here are a couple that another mom that traveled with us remember: “Hot Wind Life” with a picture of shoes and “Army Life” which was wrapped around a smiley face. (Thanks Love S.!)

Teddy bears are also quite popular on t-shirts, and not just for women. At the Chengdu airport was spotted one middle aged man sporting a black t-shirt with a large rhinestone teddy bear on it with the following statement: “BEAR 400% BRICK”…..alrighty then. Again thanks to the other mom Love S. who not only remembered the exact wording but looked it up and discovered that Be@rBrick is actually a toy popular in China and that the percent sign means the size of the bear (to find out more click here. Funny thing is that I saw these all over the place while we were there and even brought home a small one with an opera face painted on it. So I guess that t-shirt made sense after all.

I truly wish that I had been faster with my camera and had captured more examples, but since the shirts we saw were usually on people walking in the opposite direction on the street, it was difficult. Far be it from me to have chased down some innocent Chinese person in pursuit of reading their shirt. Can you imagine the headline? “Crazy Foreigner Yells To Be Watching The Shirt!” The article probably would have gone on to say that I had fallen flat on my face in my pursuit, certainly that would most likely have happened owing to my ever present graceful abilities, I do seem to have a flair for falling.

Menus were also a good source for literal translations gone awry. One restaurant we ate at, which turned out to have really delicious food, had a very interesting menu. Here are a few examples of dishes and their translations into English: “The Black Pepper Sheet Iron of the Fillet Steak Burns” and “The Fatty Cow Sheet Iron of the Type Pickles Burns” and my personal favorite: “The American Carbon Roasts a Cowboy Row to Burn” Hmmmm, I am guessing that charred meat is involved somehow in each of these dishes. Then on another page of the menu there was “Sleeping The Pepper Fries Cow” and “The Bacon Fries a Cabbage”. I am thinking about turning a couple of these into t-shirts of my own on my Café Press site! Quite attention grabbing, don’t you think?

Translating Chinese into English I am sure must be very difficult, for one thing one must take characters that convey whole words or even concepts in Chinese and translate them into letters that form words in English. It’s gotta be tough. If you want your English name translated into Chinese, say you want a chop made ( a “chop” is a stamp or seal carved into stone), the sales person whips out a translation dictionary and looks up the sounds of your name. The combined sounds could end up as a jumble of words that make no sense or a combination that means something quite bizarre and amusing. On my first trip to China I had a chop made for a friend who’s first name is Bernard. The young woman at the shop pulled out her battered dictionary and looked up the sounds of “ber” and “nard” and proptly started to giggle. “What is it?” I asked. At first she just shook her head, but I persisted. She told me that those sounds translated into something like ‘stinky old uncle’. “Perfect!” I cried, for indeed, this name for Bernie was spot on and he being a person with a great sense of humor, would appreciate the merriment at his expense.

Signs translated into English were much appreciated by us while traveling; it is very kind of the Chinese to even think of us and our need to know where we are as English speakers. We saw this sign at the temple where they did not want you taking photos inside, it read: ‘Don’t Burn Incense and Film In The Hall’. And when we arrived at the Han Mei Lin Museum, the sign directing us where to park read ‘paking’ and was elegantly engraved into stone markers. Perhaps this one had been translated by someone who had visited Boston?

I will be forever grateful that Coca Cola was more readily available for this most recent trip to China, I so very much craved the stuff back in 2001 but couldn’t find it anywhere. This time there was Coke and Pepsi and even diet Coke, yippee! In fact, Coca Cola was first sold in China in 1927, it was then that shop keepers who sold the new drink attempted to transliterate the name into Mandarin and created home-made signs with characters that were the nearest phonetic equivalent to “Coca-Cola" without regard to the meaning and ended up with a product called “bite the wax tadpole” or in another case “female horse fastened with wax.” Doesn’t sound too refreshing does it? So The Coca Cola Company got busy mighty quick in trying to find suitable characters that approximated the sound of their product without it meaning something totally absurd. The closest Mandarin equivalent that fit the bill was “K'o K'ou K'o Lê” and means “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.” Much better than tadpoles and wax, no? So obviously, the translation problems run both ways.

We searched in vain to find some of these English translation t-shirts while we were in China, but apparently we didn’t know where to shop, and we did go into just about every back alley we saw. However, we did purchase many t-shirts with Chinese writing on them as souvenirs. And no, I don’t have any idea what they say, although BFF Pegeen did try and get someone to translate them while we were there and was just told “it’s okay, it’s okay, nothing bad.” Sure hope we don’t discover otherwise someday while wearing one!


Tuesday, November 25, 2008


Giving thanks and graditude for all that we have. Just look at those faces! The picture says it all. Blessings!


Dear Lily,
There seem to be a lot of kids that don’t believe in Santa Claus, what do you think?
Inquiring in Ithaca

Dear Ithy,
This is what my Mom says: “If you don’t believe, you don’t receive.” And she still believes, and indeed receives presents from Santa every Christmas, but not nearly as many as I do. My Mom is big into fantasy; she says that is why there always seem to be so many magical creatures around our house. There is evidence for this all the time. For instance, things are always going missing and then reappearing days later in the very spot where we had already looked for it. Those we blame on Mischief Elves. And with all the holidays that there are this time of year, there are the inevitable disagreements between the various groups of holiday fairies. Last month for example, I came home to find what looked like red, orange and silver glitter all over the dining room table and chairs and floor. I asked Mom if she had been doing crafts and she told me no, that it was the result of a fight between the Halloween Fairies and the Christmas Fairies, who thought that the Halloween Fairies should have returned to their own tree in the woods and let them start working their magic in the house. The Halloween Fairies said that they still had at least another week before the Thanksgiving Fairies showed up and that the Christmas Fairies had no right to even be in the house yet. A terrible battle ensued and fairy dust got all over the dining room. Mama said she took cover under the dining room table and watched the whole thing. She described in detail every moment of the battle and said she barely missed being speared by a horned Halloween Fairy knock off his balance. I asked her who won and she said that it was hard to tell since both sides had many injured and were last seen carrying out the wounded bandaged up with spider's web and laying on wee stretchers made of oak leaves, trudging out the kitchen door and to opposite sides of the garden. Mama had fairy dust in her hair for days and there is still sparkling evidence of the great battle in various parts of the house. Fairies can be so inconsiderate sometimes! At present the Thanksgiving Fairies are defiantly in residence as there is orange and red dust all over the house. Though the other day I spied a pinch of blue dust glittering in the hallway, I expect it is the New Years Fairies trying to jump in early. I plan to keep my eyes peeled for trouble, because there is sure to be some once the Christmas Fairies find out!
So Ithy, if I were you I would heed my Mama’s words. Sure you would still get gifts from your parents and friends if you didn’t believe, but nothing can compare to the haul that Santa brings. And Mama says that a magical mind is far more fun and interesting than one that only believes what it sees with the eyes in its head. After all, what we see with our eyes is only one way of perceiving the world. So keep your options open and look with your heart. Simply put: believe it baby, believe it all. Lily

Saturday, November 22, 2008


For nearly all my life I have had long hair, meaning that its length has been anywhere from past my shoulders to as long as to my hips. I had it cut very short once when I was seven years old, the cut was called a “Pixie”, anybody remember those? But other than that it has been long hair for me. I suspose it has been a kind of security blanket of sorts. But now that I am of a certain age it just seems like maybe it is time for a change. I had hesitated up to this point for two reasons, one was just not knowing how I might look with short hair, I assume I looked quite cute the last time, but I was seven, of course it was cute then, but it is now many decades later, I believe my cuteness expired back in the 80's somewhere. The other reason was that my mother has short hair and we are constantly being mistaken for sisters when we are together. (I'm not kidding, it's great for my mom's ego, but highly annoying to me and not so wonderful for my ego), so anything that was going to make us look more alike I was naturally going to feel timid about. Yet when I asked a few of my friends what they thought about my cutting my hair short they were, to a person, very enthusiastic. Okay, so perhaps this change was somewhat overdue. But what finally got me thinking seriously about it was looking at all of the pictures taken while in China. Of course I did most of my own picture taking, but my BFF traveling with us took quite a few hundred as well and there I was from behind... YIKES! Is that really what my hair looks like from the back?! (We won't even mention here my reaction to what the rest of me looks like from the self image dilemma at a time). That horrid realization coupled with the fact that trying to color long hair ever two weeks was really getting quite tedious. And so, I made the appointment to have it cut off. I bought several hair style magazines for inspiration and direction and my friend Jennica generously volunteered to watch both girls so that I could go to the salon for what I hoped would be a remarkable transformation in peace. Thanks Jennica!! Really!

I arrived early, magazines in one hand with examples circled and a large Starbucks in the other (hey, if the Mama is going to have a wee bit of time for herself, let's do it right!) So I had some time to sit in the middle of the salon's waiting area and listen to the conversation going on around me as well as observe a slice of modern culture in action. My stylist was running late, which was okay since I didn't currently have two small, active children to attempt to keep in check like I would normally, and so I just sat back to listen and watch.

Across the room was a mother, teenage daughter and her tween brother, all quite involved in the haircut being given to the teenage girl. Mom was taking pictures, daughter was batting her eyes and giggling and brother was hamming it up and trying to jump in front of the camera, or give his sister rabbit ears with his two fingers. Daughter even wanted the stylist to get in the photo too. Goodness, has this child never been to a salon before? Still, they all seemed to be enjoying each other and their morning task. It made me smile.

Behind me I could hear a matronly voice spouting tidbits of historical trivia. On and on she rattled; about the Victorian hobby of creating hair jewelry from loved one's cast off hair. (Want to know more? Go here ). Then it was on to the origin of the saying “getting the bugs out”, like when you say “I need to work the bugs out of the system.” Which apparently involved Henry Ford, a shortage of horse hair stuffing and the substitution of oak moss for padding in car seats. (I was unable to verify this, but I'll keep searching). On and on went the trivia without any response that I could hear from the listener. After a while I had to take a look at this seemingly endless source of minutiae and turned around to discovered that instead of an elderly client chattering to her stylist, what we had here was a male stylist, a wee bit advanced in age, blathering on to a very dignified looking woman who appeared to be no younger than eighty or so, yet spry, who currently had her arms folded across her chest and was starring at the floor with a look of utter irritation on her face. Oblivious to her lack of interest, Mr. Joey moved on to the oh so fascinating subject of the origins of Jello.

To my right was a baby getting his first hair cut and a proud mom and dad beaming and cooing. Baby looked stunned and bewildered. The place was bustling and humming. Hair was dropping to the floor and being swept up and mingled together with the other contributions falling all around, creating fluffy little piles about the room. What an interesting social snapshot this was when one stopped to look. There were young and old; members of every race; men and women, children and elders, long hair, short hair, black, white, gray, yellow, red and brown hair. Curly, straight, braided and almost non-existent. And all this hubbub was about one thing – hair.

The client my stylist was working on before me was a woman probably about my age with long hair reaching down her back. She was having it trimmed and it looked exactly the same when she was done as when she walked in. Normally, that would be me, but I smiled and to myself said, 'Not this time! This time I will walk out, for better or worse, looking different than when I walked in.'

Finally, it was my turn. I showed my magazines, I discussed, I listened to suggestions and we got on with it. No messing around from my wonderful hair cutter, she put the bulk of my hair in a rubber band and off it came, just like ripping off a band aid, do it quickly and you don't have time to register the sting. And there it was forthwith before me looking like the tail of a dog laying on the counter. Then suddenly it was like Edward Scissorhands had stepped up behind me; hair flew, combs seemed to come from nowhere. Snip! Snap! Poof! Spray! Brushing and combing and twirling of the chair ensued. When it was over I peered at my image in the gigantic mirror and found I was almost unrecognizable to myself. After all, I had never seen this adult face without a curtain of long hair surrounding it. So do I like it? Ah, yeah, I think I do. It will probably take some time to get used to what ever I am suppose to do with it besides washing it. I was warned that it might be a little more work than I was used to with my wash-and-go long straight hair. For sure the sensation of suddenly short hair is fantastic! My head indeed feels ten pounds lighter. And when I wash it for the first time I suspect it will seem like I am practically bald headed.

And do I now look even more like my mom? Well, probably. I'm willing to bet the whole sister comparison thing will most likely get worse. Bother. But that's just the way it is. I'll get back to you in a few days after I've lived with it awhile. I do sort of dread work on Monday, I don't like a fuss, and I am sure there will be comments, but I suppose it would be worse if no one said a word about it, right? Then I would worry that it either looked totally horrid or I was just plain invisible all together. Isn't it interesting that this bit of fluff on the top of our heads is so very important to how we see ourselves and each other. How it becomes a part our security and identity. How we worry, fuss, groom and baby this bit of keratinous filament growing out of the top of us. And how very entertaining this hair culture has been to witness on a cold and blustery Saturday morning; a little snapshot of humanity centered around hair.

I feel it only appropriate to leave you to ponder the brilliantly written words of Galt MacDermot from the rock musical HAIR:

She asks me why...I'm just a hairy guy
I'm hairy noon and night; Hair that's a fright.
I'm hairy high and low,
Don't ask me why; don't know!
It's not for lack of bread
Like the Grateful Dead; darling

Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair
Shining, gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen
Give me down to there, hair!
Shoulder length, longer (hair!)
Here baby, there mama, Everywhere daddy daddy

Hair! (hair, hair, hair, hair, hair, hair)
Flow it, Show it;
Long as God can grow it, My Hair!

Let it fly in the breeze and get caught in the trees
Give a home to the fleas in my hair
A home for fleas, a hive for bees
A nest for birds, there ain't no words
For the beauty, the splendor, the wonder of my

I want it long, straight, curly, fuzzy
Snaggy, shaggy, ratty, matty
Oily, greasy, fleecy, shining
Gleaming, steaming, flaxen, waxen

Knotted, polka-dotted; Twisted, beaded, braided

Powdered, flowered, and confettied
Bangled, tangled, spangled and spaghettied!

O-oh, Say can you see; my eyes if you can,
Then my hair's too short!
Down to here, down to there,
Down to where, down to there;
It stops by itself!
doo doo doo doo doot-doot doo doo doot

They'll be ga-ga at the go-go
when they see me in my toga
My toga made of blond, brilliantined, Biblical hair
My hair like Jesus wore it
Hallelujah I adore it
Hallelujah Mary loved her son
Why don't my Mother love me?

KKW ©2008

Friday, November 14, 2008


According to Confucius, in about 3000 B.C. a young girl named Hsi Ling Shi, who also happened to be the empress, was relaxing in her garden while sipping tea. PLOP! Something falls into her tea cup. ‘Oh drat!’ She delicately mutters. She reaches in to fish out the offending missile and pulls out the cocoon of a silk caterpillar. ‘Ewwwwww, well that’s just nasty!’ she exclaims. She daintily tosses the cocoon to the ground and orders a new cup of tea from a palace servant. While patiently awaiting the beverage’s arrival, she glances back down at the cocoon at her feet. It is now soaked and rubbery looking and she notices the end of a thread has unraveled. Carefully she bends and grasps the thread and the cocoon begins to unwind. Being a young woman of ingenuity, and having nothing better to do, she decides to try and weave the thread. ‘Well’, she thinks while admiring her handiwork, ‘this has turned out far better than I thought it would. This cloth I have woven is so soft and, um, silky, yes; 'silky' is such a cute little word.’ She is only fourteen after all, an age when “y”s are added to the ends of most words in a girl’s vocabulary. Recovering from this moment of girly-ness, she begins to study the life cycle of the silk caterpillar and then instructs her gaggle of lady friends in the art of raising them, an art form now referred to as sericulture. And from that point in history she becomes the goddess of silk in Chinese mythology. You go girl!

The resulting industry is wildly popular and an imperial ban was placed on silk worm exportation and sericulture remained a carefully guarded secret in China for nearly 3000 years. Until that is another young princess, who was about to be married to a prince from far away Khotan, refused to go without her luxurious silk fabric and hid a handful of the caterpillars in her hair as she bit fair-thee-well to mom and dad, thus opening the way for trade and the Silk Road as the other teenage girls of the world demand the wondrous fabric.

Again, the Chinese pretty much had a corner on the silk market until in 550 A.D. When the Roman emperor Justinian I (ruling from 527-65 A.D.) sent two Christian monks to China to risk their lives in stealing mulberry seeds and silkworm eggs. They succeeded and secreting their treasure in their bamboo walking sticks, high tailed it to Byzantium. From there sericulture spread through the centuries to the West and into Europe.

Recently, an archaeological find; a small ivory cup carved with a silkworm design, thought to be between 6,000 and 7,000 years old, coupled with other discoveries along the lower Yangzi River reveal the origins of sericulture to be much earlier than originally thought.

While I, daughter #1 and best-friend Pegeen were visiting Beijing, we were taken to the Yuanlong Silk Factory where we were educated on the process of silk making and were able to witness and even participate in parts of this fascinating procedure. Of course, we were also presented with the opportunity to purchase finished wares.

Entering the factory we were first directed to view a display showing the life cycle of the silk worm, or more correctly, the silk caterpillar, which first involves the incubation of the tiny eggs of the blind, flightless moth (Bombyx mori) until they hatch as caterpillars. They are then placed on their favorite food source; mulberry leaves and covered in a layer of gauze (I assume to prevent escape). The little caterpillar packages are kept on woven trays that are stacked on shelves in a climate controlled environment, which not only means controlling the temperature, but also protecting the worms from loud noises, drafts and strong smells. The racket made by a roomful of munching worms sounds much like heavy rain falling on a roof. For six weeks they chomp away almost continuously, by the end of which they are ready to spin their cocoons and they are given the branches of trees on which to attach themselves. They produce a jelly-like substance in their silk glands, which hardens when it comes in contact with air. For eight days they make their cocoons in one continuous thread which measures from 2,000 – 3,000 feet long. It takes 5,500 cocoons to produce about 2 pounds of raw silk. These thousands of cocoons are gathered and the poor little buggers inside are killed by heating them either in ovens or by steaming or boiling. Boiling also dissolves the gummy substance that holds the thread in place. From there the ends of four to eight cocoons are joined and attached to a reel where they are twisted together first with each other, then with other similarly combined fibers resulting in a thread referred to as raw silk that contains 48 individual silk fibers. These fibers are then twisted again with others to make a thread strong enough for weaving. This is called “throwing” and produces four different types of silk thread depending on how many twists are made and in what combination of directions. I began to think about how very complex this process was, but then I realized that the Chinese had several millenniums in order to perfect it.

We were allowed to pick up and even take home a cocoon of our own. They are oval in shape and about an inch and a half in length. The papery cocoons are very light and if you shake one you can feel the dried up caterpillar inside rattling around.

From there we were shown a reel machine. This is where the fiber ends are attached to reels after being soaked in water to loosen the strands and are then unwound. When one cocoon is finished unraveling, another is attached and a continuous thread is produced. You can see the basket in my photo where the dead caterpillars are collected once the fibers are completely unwound. The cocoons that are processed in this way are ones with a single caterpillar in them. Apparently, there are caterpillars that want to share their little abodes and two will get together and spin one cocoon, their fibers becoming hopelessly entangled. Since these are not able to be unwound like the single caterpillar cocoons, they are soaked in water and then a slice is made down one side. The woven cocoon is stretched over a “U” shaped loop (see photo) to make it big enough for four people to grab a corner and the cocoon is stretched to amazing proportions in order to make a delicate, fluffy layer that is added to the pile of other such layers to compose the filling for a quilt. The three of us tried our hand at this stretching and I don’t think that we will be working a silk factory any time soon, the layer we produced was somewhat lopsided. It really was quite interesting though and in true American consumer fashion I really wanted one of these remarkable quilts. And indeed, the factory wanted me to have one as well. I expressed regret that an entire quilt would not be able to fit in my already over-burdened suitcase and was helpfully told: “We make small for you!” And they did, the quilt was folded and all the air was sucked out, it then took up no more space than a travel pillow. Way cool! Though the duvet covers being displayed were truly gorgeous, they were also beyond my budget, and I would have had a very hard time deciding in any case. But oh! the feel of them! The extravagant opulence of contact with this lush textile makes you just want to slip in and wrap yourself up like, well… a silk worm. Perhaps this is why at various times throughout history silk was only allowed to be used by royalty because should the common man sleep upon it he might never want to rise and go to work. Yes, right about now I believe that I will be crawling under my prized silk quilt for a good night's rest. Thank you little caterpillars for working so very hard to keep me comfortable and warm. And thank you too to all of those clever teenage girls thousands of years ago who sought to make themselves useful and not just sit around under trees sipping tea all day long. Your mamas would be proud!

KKW ©2008

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


About ten years ago, while eating lunch at work with my friend Judith, we were discussing the changes that come along with aging and comparing what others had told us about it. After some dialogue, she matter-of-factly stated that the only real difference she had noticed was that she fell down more. This declaration nearly caused me to choke on the over-boiled bite of cafeteria food that I had in my mouth at the time, because having a visual mind, I immediately picture whatever anyone says to me and I find slap-stick the height of hilarity. I love guys like Steve Martin, Steve Carell and Rowan Atkinson. Even if the Pink Panther movies aren’t the greatest in terms of script, I will still view it again and again just to watch Mr. Martin crash through walls and fall through floors. I can laugh myself silly watching the old Mr. Bean show where visual humor makes up the bulk of the amusement and Mr. Bean only mutters an indistinct word every so often. And that scene in Evan Almighty where Steve Carell is attempting to build his ark and keeps hammering his finger or falling off a beam? Well, let’s just say that when I took Lily to see it in the theater she was sitting on my lap at the time of that particular scene and she started complaining because I was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down my face and soaking the back of her shirt. There is also a scene in the movie Nine Months where Hugh Grant is racing through town to get his pregnant girlfriend to the hospital in time to deliver their baby and they keep hitting people and having to take them along to the hospital. Well, you get the picture, I like the shtick!

Interestingly, my love of Mr. Bean is apparently shared by several million Chinese where visual humor makes up a lot of what the Chinese find funny. While in China my friend Pegeen and I had asked one of our guides, Judy, about Chinese humor and how she thought it differed from Western humor. She was the one who told us about Mr. Bean, and indeed, his most recent movie was playing on the TV while we were there and we even saw a bill board with his picture on it in China. I asked Judy what her favorite funny American movie was and she replied ‘Mr. and Mrs. Smith.’ ‘Huh’ I thought, because though I had not seen this particular movie, I was familiar with it and I don’t remember it being advertised as a comedy. I was really quite puzzled so when it happened to be playing on cable after I arrived home I sat through it. Um, no, I don’t think that it was exactly a comedy and I now wish I had asked Judy what it was that she found so hilarious in it. I mean, I can sort of see the tongue-in-cheek absurdity, but laugh-out-loud funny? So, I remain perplexed.

One time when Lily was 3 and she had just started sleeping in “a big bed”, I heard a dull thunk in the middle of the night. I waited, then heard the whimpering. I rushed to her room to find her on the floor.

'What happened sweetie?'

'Oh, I just fell out of bed.' Okay, so I really tried not to laugh at that one but it was difficult and fortunately she wasn’t hurt, if she had been I am sure that I wouldn’t think it was funny, trust me. We purchased a thingy for the bed to keep her from falling out the next day.

Even if it is me doing the falling I still find it exceedingly funny. The other day I was trying to fix a cable under my desk and went to sit on the tiny plastic chair that belongs to my two year old. The thin little leg twisted and down I went, my fanny landing right on the length of that “V” shaped plastic chair leg, which amazingly didn’t break. I lay on the floor writhing in pain, yet still laughing my head off. Lily rushed to my side,

'Are you okay Mama? What did you do?’

‘My bum landed on the chair leg, oooooooohhhhhhhhhh!! Haaaa Haaaa!!’

'Oh Mom, you have to be more careful….that’s gonna leave a mark!’ More laughter from me ensued at that. And boy oh boy did it ever leave a mark, about six inches by three of dark purple. Good thing it is where no one can see it.

So a visit to China just wouldn’t be complete without me falling down at some point. The first time I went in 2001 to adopt Lily our group asked to stop at a huge lotus field so that we could take pictures of the beautiful plants. I think our tour guide thought this was a little ridiculous, but humored us. As we wandered about the edge of the field, the lotus being planted in a wet marshy-like muck, I thought I spotted a four leaf clover. ‘How lucky!’ I thought to myself. Well, it turns out, not so much. As I bent kind of sideways to pick it, Lily being strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, my heel slipped on the edge of an irrigation ditch and I fell backwards into it. I threw one arm across Lily and the other out behind me…and it sunk up to my elbow into the sludge. The ditch was just wide enough for my hips to fit snuggly which meant I was stuck like a turtle on its back. The bus driver and our guide were truly horrified and had me hauled out in seconds and then arms came from nowhere to get the baby off my chest. She was fine of course since I had fallen backwards not forwards and she hadn’t even seemed to notice her sudden change of direction from vertical to horizontal. Of course I was laughing, I wasn’t even embarrassed, it was just plain funny to me. There was a small crowd of mostly older Chinese men and women standing on the road above the fields to stare at the lao wai (foreigners) and they too were laughing gleefully. I suspect that the tale was told again and again over dinner that night of the clumsy lao wai with a Chinese baby strapped to her chest who fell in the, um…fertilizer.

So I didn’t disappoint on this most recent trip to China…I tripped of course. This time it was in Beijing and we were walking the length of the pedestrian shopping area. My eyes were everywhere drinking in the new and unfamiliar. Everywhere that is except where I was walking. I was saying to Lily and my friend Pegeen, ‘What do you suppose are in those little grey crocks with the straw sticking out?’ (see photo), when I tripped over one of those rubber electric cord protectors. There was even a big yellow sign over it warning of its presence, but I wasn’t looking there. You know that split second when you slip or trip and think you are going to catch yourself? Yeah, I hate that split second, it lies! Down I went onto the cobblestone in front a group of tables filled with locals eating dinner. I had even been holding Lily’s hand at the time, but when the big Mama goes down, a tiny eight year old isn’t gonna save her. Okay, this time I was embarrassed…a little, but it was still very funny. Looking back on it now I probably should have jumped up, thrown out my arms and shouted “ta da!”, because not one of those staring Asian faces was laughing, or even smiling for that matter. Nor did they look concerned or sympathetic at my lack of grace, which made it even worse, they just stared. Maybe they burst into gales of laughter after we had made our way out of site, who knows. Oh, and what was in those little grey crocks? Drinkable yogurt. Silly me, I should have guessed.

So what would make a person in China laugh? I wondered and so I did a wee bit of research. One form of comedy that has been popular in China is something called xiangsheng, which translates literally as “face and voice”, but is usually referred to in English as “crosstalk”. It was developed as street theater in the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911) and by the mid twentieth-century had become a complex oral performance form with anti-authoritarian overtones. Xiangsheng takes the age-old formula of humorous repartee being exchanged between an exasperated straight-man to a muddle-headed clown and draws upon all aspects of Chinese culture for its subject matter. American comic performers have something similar, minus the anti-authoritarian
overtones, an example would be Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First routine. Additionally, teams such as Martin and Lewis, The Smothers Brothers, Burns and Allen, Rowan and Martin, performed this kind of back and forth banter. But the Chinese form adds to this dialogue a complex play on words rich in puns and satire.

Here you can watch a classic example of Xiangsheng, although unless you understand Mandarin you will have no idea what these two guys are saying, even so, you can get an idea of how it is performed. And Mark Rowswell, a Canadian known as Da Shan in China is considered to be the most famous foreigner in China because of his mastery in performing Xiangsheng which the Chinese find amazing since Mandarin is not his first language and Xiangsheng is considered an art form like any other which takes many years to master. In our house we know of him because we are able to get CCTV, China's English language channel where he gives lessons in speaking Mandarin. Here is a link to him performing a solo Xiangsheng skit. Watching these has really gotten me interested in knowing more about this type of comedy. Although I suppose there really isn't any way of truly understanding it without understanding the language and culture in which it is spoken. (sigh)

It has also gotten me thinking about why and how and what makes us laugh and how culture plays a part in this. Our guides in China were all amazing; personable, knowledgeable and reliable. It can’t be an easy job leading large groups of addle-brained new parents around a large, busy, very crowded country. It does seem that a person with an ease of temperament and good humor would have an easier time working as a tour guide than others. All of the guides that we had while in China had a good sense humor, but one especially knew what we as Americans might find amusing, making us laugh easily using some traditional self-deprecation with a certain amount of fun being made at both our cultures. Of course, we were a very easy audience; a captive group of giddy new parents who’s only really deep thought in the last 24 hours was how to find a decent diaper among the local retail offerings. Still, she was quite entertaining and kept us smiling, which is exceedingly important to nervous parents or anyone else under constant fluctuating levels of anxiety, humor brings calm to the heart and mind in stressful circumstances.

On the opposite end of the stick, people with no sense of humor puzzle me. It always makes me wonder how on earth their branch of the evolutionary family tree has survived this predicament that we call the human experience to this point in history. There is so much tragedy in the world, how else to endure without hitting it head on with wit? Frankly, I would become hopelessly ill informed otherwise, for I would cease to listen to the news daily if I wasn’t also able to counter it with absurdity. I am drawn helplessly to people with a great sense of humor. These are also usually the folks with a ready smile and an easy ego; who don’t take themselves too seriously. I don’t think that it is an evolutionarily accident that “a good sense of humor” ranks in the top three traits that young men and women look for in a mate. It ranks higher with what women look for in a man than what men look for in a woman (attractiveness would be number one with men….big surprise). But with women, being able to make us laugh makes the man more attractive to us. Interesting isn’t it? I would be willing to bet that looking for a sense of humor in a mate goes up even further as women grow older. So why is this? Do we need to laugh so badly that we want to pass on these genes to our offspring in hopes that they too will keep us in stitches? Or is it that we wish to be entertained by both our mate and our children? Perhaps it’s just that we want someone to come along and grab the neck of that balloon of stress that inflates throughout the day and release some of the hot air in it while simultaneously making that funny squeaking noise, because funny squeaking noises are FUNNY and we all know it. Laughter releases stress, promotes bonding, encourages love and friendship. Laughter to me equals not just survival but happiness.

So writing this has really got me pondering the comical side of humans. Are we born with a sense of humor or is it developed? Are there cultures that are funnier than others? Are there cultures that use humor more effectively than others? Is what makes us laugh vastly different between cultures and individuals, or are we pretty much on the same playing field? These are all questions I am now preoccupied with and want answered. I know that there are folks reading this who are from other countries and cultures. Anyone with knowledge who would like to enlighten me, please, I am begging you, weigh in and leave your comments. Especially if they are funny!
KKW ©2008

Wednesday, November 05, 2008


Our wait to vote on election day 2008 was relatively short, about 40 minutes, which is a blessing since attempting to wait in any line with two small children can be a challenge at the best of times. The line that chilly morning snaked out the door and across the parking lot of the local fire department hall. So I put Meika in the stroller and handed her a granola bar which kept her contented, but left a trail of crumbs throughout the line. Lily was not contained, physically or mentally. She remained in constant movement and non-stop conversation the entire wait. Yep, that’s my girl alright. ‘I’m cold. I’m hungry. Hey, what’s that on that guy’s shirt? Meika, watch me do this. Meika, make a face like this. Meika, you are getting crumbs everywhere! Mom, Meika is getting crumbs everywhere!” All at full volume of course.

I had reminded Lily about the voting “rules” before we ever left the house. She has always come with me to vote and we have discussed that she must remain silent and just watch and not get in the way and NOT touch the screen. She assured me that she remembered the rules. So when we finally get our turn at the designated “booth” what’s the first thing she does? Touch the screen of course. Fortunately, her fingers didn’t hit any critical spots.

‘Lily! Don’t touch! I’m the one voting.’

‘Oh, sorry Mama.’

The choices for president come up…

‘Mom! Vote for ‘***’! Vote for ‘***’!

100 sets of queued up eyes turn our way.

‘Lily, remember what I told you.’

‘Oh right, sorry Mom.’

I check the box of my choice.

‘Yeah! You voted for ‘***’ Good job Mama! That’s who I wanted you to vote for!’

Oye, so much for the anonymity of the polling booth.

KKW ©2008