Writing my book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, was itself a very different kind of journey than any I’d taken before.  Reliving those years through the details of my many journals and letters my mother saved, made sights, faces, smells, tastes, and experiences return to me in a vibrant, overwhelming profusion.  I started out writing the book, but very quickly the Muse became my very demanding master.  The feeling was like a movie I once saw in which one of the actors making a movie couldn’t separate his real life from that of the characters in the movie.  In similar fashion, my past and present blurred until daily chores and activities became burdensome, annoying distractions from writing.  The present dimmed, my past took over, and the future went blank.  Finishing the book became more and more important to me.  My life couldn’t move forward without going backward first.

Rather like an insistent playmate, the keyboard summoned me any time of day or night.  Whether I was in a theatre watching a ballet, reading the newspaper, or even in the shower, I could hear the silent yet strident call to return to the keyboard.  When the Muse dictated to me, I obeyed by scribbling words, phrases, ideas on scraps of paper that appeared everywhere around my home.  I even pulled off the road into a parking lot to write down something that wouldn’t stop niggling at my mind.  Just the “right word,” or the best turn of a phrase became my first thought upon awakening, and the last thought that kept me from sleeping.  It was both exhilarating and exhausting.

The mind mellows memories and even eliminates some unpleasant ones.  The journals and letters tell it like it happened.  A book written with the 20/20 of hindsight would have been quite different.  As the memories swarmed and buzzed around in my mind, I resisted writing with the knowledge of how it all turned out.  Having the wisdom that hindsight gives, I understood some of what I had written in the journals better.  But I purposely kept in some of my false impressions.  I didn’t want to make myself any smarter than I was at the time.  I wanted the book to show some of the emotional and mental odyssey my long journey over so many years took me on.

Except for some notations and some attempts to clarify, the writing in the book is as it was written in the journals.   This is important because the times and places and people changed greatly over the time span of my book.  The people in the book are real, but their names have been changed and some things that happened omitted to protect their privacy.  I did not want to lose any of my friends.

I am proud of having traversed so many miles and cultures.  I was a sculptor of sorts who could carve out niches for myself wherever I went.  Learning another culture is like slowly peeling an onion, layer by layer, and cannot be hurried.  And I took with me what I call, “the lesson of Kabuki.”  While watching Kabuki Theatre in Japan, I learned not to be judgmental about other cultures because there are so many things I am not able to appreciate or adequately understand.

No matter how eloquent they may be, how paltry words are to express experiences.  They pale in comparison.  A book, no matter the size, can only convey glimpses into the depth and breadth of what was seen, felt, done, thought.  Like a camera’s eye, it can convey only a limited portion of what can be seen.  That said, writing journals as I traveled became the continuing thread through the years, connecting all the disjointed pieces of my life.  The book has become the anchor for my drifting memories.  It is my heart trying to write itself.

I wrote the book because I never would have discovered Bali without that aging book on the dusty back of a library shelf that someone bothered to write.  I wrote it for the people I know who have said, “I wish I could have traveled like you,” as well as those who said, “I love to read about your travels because you do things I’d never do.”  And, I wrote it for myself.  Not only does it remind me of why I’m unmarried and poor today, but it captures as best I can what, in many instances, can never be seen again, as well as the intangible value of the best years of my life.

In 1979, I renamed myself after giving up everything I had thought I wanted.  Something very deep inside pushed me into the unknown.  It was the most painful decision of my life.  I knew there would always be a hole in me for leaving the husband I loved.  I felt neither whole nor well.  So, I fashioned a name for myself that had embedded in it my hopes for becoming whole and well.  I used Swahili because Kenya was the last place my husband, son, and I visited as a family.

It was during the years, miles, and experiences contained within the pages of  Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird that I traveled the path toward growing into the wholeness and wellness of my name, Zima.  I have now set  Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird into flight.  And I begin the next journey into my future.

You are invited to join me at my new blog, The Senior Hummingbird, at


October 7, 2009

This is the Singapore I first observed in 1989.

Singapore is a mixture of China without the dirt, India of the high caste only, and American values, looks, and money.  One must admire an entire country that is squeaky clean enough to eat off subway floors, prohibits smoking in almost all places, has virtually no crime or drugs, and although home to a mix of cultures, demands integrated neighborhoods and no racism.

Singaporeans are neither friendly nor unfriendly.  Bus drivers can speak English, but don’t offer much help in getting around because they seem to know only their own routes.  It is steamy hot like Bali, but not as gentle as Bali.

One should not judge cities too quickly, for each city has its blemishes and its good sides.  Singapore has an emphasis on materialism much like the U.S., but without the crime and craziness, or democracy.  But the dictatorial ways of the government have also given Singaporeans a good life.  The government has myriad rules and regulations, which not only keep out pornography and drugs, but which even prevent traffic jams in the city by only allowing certain-numbered license plates to drive certain places on particular days.

Singapore has made me think of how out of proportion the world is economically.  I paid $3.00 for a musical greeting card to send to a friend in China where $25 is a monthly wage.  And an East Indian Singaporean woman told me that her mother had shopped every day of her adult life but ten — on each of those ten days she had had a baby.  The amahs, live-in nannies, did everything else.

I slept last night in a 2 x 4 cubicle with only a mattress on the floor surrounded by a good number of sleeping bodies in a crash pad in Singapore.  Tonight I have a bedroom larger than my entire apartment in Israel, a magnificent penthouse view of the Singapore skyline, and a luxurious bathroom that looks out over the city from the 22nd story.

I have gone from rages to riches because I called Mrs. N., whose name had been given to me by someone I met in Bali.  Mrs. N.’s husband was sent by his company to work in Singapore.  They live “high” in every way.  Their apartment is absolutely huge and on multi-levels, with more luxury than anything I’ve seen, and certainly much more than anyplace I’ve ever stayed.  It’s a peek into another foreign place to me — the world of the wealthy.

Singapore has lush vegetation, cleanliness, efficiency, and a certain upper middle-class boredom.  To me, it lacks the charm of Hong Kong.  While I’ve penned these musings about Singapore in a Burger King, the employees have continually mopped and wiped around me.

September 24, 2009

This is a continuation of the last two posts where I, in 1992, had a conversation with Mary Gaunt, who wrote a book called  A Woman in China, published in 1914.  We are comparing our observations on travel in China.

Mary:  “It marked a wonderful stride in Chinese feeling that a Chinese should come to the assistance of a foreigner in distress.”

Me:  The first time I knew I was being cheated by a street vendor was the look of triumph on his face and the laughter of the crowd that had gathered to watch our transaction.  And Richard, Russell, and Bill explained to me once that a watermelon vendor had chastised them for not helping him to cheat me.  He told them he expected their help as Chinese to be on his side.  But then I remember a woman who stopped by while I was negotiating for some fruit.  Even though I couldn’t understand her words to the vendor, it was clear that she told the vendor not to charge me more than a Chinese person.  Other pedicab drivers In Jiaxin also told one of their own that he had overcharged me and pressured him to give me back some money.

Mary:  “But since the interpreter knew even less English than Tuan, whom I had left outside, there was really little else to do but smile and look pleasant.”

Me:  Smiling and looking pleasant is often the only option in a country where you are reduced to an illiterate deaf mute.  Being speechless in a different country is a humbling experience indeed.

Mary:  “In truth, the civilization of China is still so much like that of Babylon and Ninevah, that it is best for the poor man, if he can, to efface himself.  He does not pray for rights as yet.  He only prays that he may slip through life unnoticed, that he may not come in contact with the powers that rule him, for no matter who is right or wrong, bitter experience has taught him that he will suffer.”

Me:  My friends have told me of a Chinese saying that the nail that stands above the others is the first to get hit by the hammer.  So, it is still true today that they don’t want to be noticed too much.  Yet, there is something else stirring in the minds of Chinese people of today.  The educated have been awakened by what they’ve learned of the world.  For peasants even in the remotest villages, the television has brought knowledge of other worlds to them.

Mary:  “Today, the spirit of the West is breathing over her and she responds a little, ever so little, and murmurs of change, yet she remains the same at heart as she has been through the ages.”

Me:  China is a vast country of over a billion people whose history spans thousands of years.  I cannot comprehend these numbers in any meaningful way.  How fast can a behemoth change?  What parts of its culture should be kept and which parts thrown away?  Are the western ways better?

I cannot guess China’s immediate or distant future.  Part of the fascination for me is being here watching what happens and somehow being a part of it all.

Mary:  “One thing seems certain, between us Westerners and the Chinese, is a great gulf fixed.  We look across and sometimes we wonder, and sometimes we pity, and sometimes we admire, but we cannot understand.”

Me:  I do not understand the bond that has grown between me and China, between me and my Chinese friends.  Yet I know it is there because I feel it strongly.

Mary:  “…and again I questioned the curious fate that sent me wandering uncomfortably around the world, and sometimes actually — yes actually getting enjoyment out of it.”

Me:  I just think of it as a very special magic that has captured me under its spell.

This is a continuation of the previous post.
Mary:  “The average Chinese mind is essentially orderly, and never dreams of questioning rules…their faces are impassive, smiling with a surface smile that gives no indication of the feelings behind.”

Me:  Events in China between your visit and mine have held much sadness and repression of both thinking and action, but these observations are as true today as they appeared to you in 1914.  The inscrutability of the Chinese must be attributable to their culture more than their politics.

Mary:  “Squeeze seems to be the accepted fact in China.”

Me:  Bribery and corruption certainly remain in China.  Proper “connections” can make or break one’s life.  My friends have told me that guanxi is interwoven into the very fabric of life in China, much like a sweater that would unravel without it.  They may not like the system, but they can imagine no other.

Mary:  “The foreigner in China is divided into two camps.  He is either missionary or he is anti-missionary.  Both sides are keen on the matter…I began to think and to say that missionary enterprise, which I had always thought should turn its attention to its own people, was at least justified in this land of China where no provision was made for the sick and afflicted, and where charity is unknown.”

Me:  You would be surprised to know that all the missionaries were kicked out of China by the communist government.  This did not mean, however, that the sick and disabled have been cared for by anyone else.  Train stations are filled with unfortunates who stick the stump of their arm into your face to beg for money.  Painfully thin children stick out bowls to you as a way to tell you they are hungry.

My friends assure me that begging is organized and big business, but my western eyes see mostly desperation on these faces.  Are children really intentionally maimed by their parents to evoke more sympathy for begging?  Perhaps so.

Missionaries are sneaking back into China in any guise they can.  Their goal is more conversion to Christianity than helping the poor.  Deprived by the government of their Buddhist rituals, the Chinese of today seem starved for some sense of spirituality.  Some of my students have asked me about god.  As China opens its doors more and more, many religious groups are poised to jump in and fill the spiritual void.  In Macau, there is a large group of the Baha’i faith encouraging converts.  I even met a couple of Messianic Jews assigned to infiltrate China and quietly introduce their religion.

I’m sorry to say that missionaries will once again have their day in modern China.

Mary:  “…and when I inspected the room offered for my accommodation, I only wished drearily that there had been no room in this particular inn, and that I might have slept out in the open…When I smelled the smell of the rooms, rank and abominable, and reeking of human occupancy, I envied my mules sleeping outside.  The Chinese, as a rule, have not much use of fresh air.  They all bear a strong resemblance to one another, the rooms of these Chinese inns.”

Me:  Although probably not as bad as where you stayed, the sameness and dreariness of the cheap hotels I stay in can get rather depressing.  The carpets are always stained.  Nothing seems truly clean.  Rarely do things like toilets, showers, lights work properly.  And the room, sheets, pillows — absolutely everything reeks of cigarette smoke from many former occupants.  They are places to be endured rather than enjoyed.

To be continued…

September 16, 2009

When I was living in Macau in 1992, I began meeting a new friend weekly at a very special library in Macau that is a copy of an ornate library in Toledo, Spain.  Her name was Mary Gaunt.  It didn’t matter that she died  before I was born.  Lest I thought that my adventures as a lone woman traveler in China were extraordinary, she left behind a book called  A Woman in China with a copyright date of 1914 that showed me we would have a lot to talk about together.  The old book was too precious to take out, but I was welcome to come visit with Mary in the quiet and dignity of the unusual library surroundings that neither of us would have expected to find in Macau.

I worried what would become of Mary’s old book along with the other dated treasures of that library when Macau reverted to Chinese rule in 1999.  The librarian had told me that these books will not be allowed to return to Portugal after the handover.  With such an uncertain fate, the library was attempting to put them onto microfilm for posterity.

Mary:  “I had reached China, the land of blue skies and of sunshine; the land of desperate poverty and of wonderful wealth; the land of triumph, and of martyrdom, and of mystery.”

Me:  Even in 1988 when I first came to China, it was an unusual destination for an American woman alone.  China’s past of deep poverty and extravagant wealth still seep through the sights one visits even though communism has leveled the excesses in the present.  As a third-world country, it all seems poor to the eyes of a westerner.  You would be disappointed in how polluted those blue skies have become as coal and smokestacks obliterate the blue.  The mystery you felt remains.

Mary:  “…in all the towns I passed through I was a show, and the people stared, and chattered, and crowded around the carts, and evidently closely questioned the carters…What romance they wove about me, I don’t know.”

Me:  Yes, I know what you mean.  It was a new phenomenon for me to be looked at so continuously and so carefully everywhere I went in China.  In the U.S., I blend in anonymously and attract no attention at all.  I know that it bothers some foreigners to be scrutinized so constantly, but I accept it as the curiosity of a country that has basically been closed to the outside world for such a long time.  I particularly remember a man walking along a railroad track who was obviously shocked to see me looking out the train window.  He studied me with an intense stare as though I surely was from another planet.  I broke into a smile.  Then, it struck him that I was just another human being.  Whereupon, he broke into a big, wide smile and we made contact.

Mary:  “When I first heard of the wolves, I laughed.  I was so sure no beast of prey could live alongside a Chinaman for the Chinaman would want to eat him.”

Me:  It was the markets of Canton, now called Guangzhou, where I first watched snakes being stripped of their skins, saw eels swimming around, and cage upon cage of miserable animals that I couldn’t even identify.  Dogs lay bleeding and half dead, waiting only for some gourmet to put them out of their misery.  I never saw cats wandering the streets.

But food is food.  And the Chinese have suffered from starvation.  You were in China long before Mao and the terrible famines, but the Chinese have had to endure starvation often.  In truth, is a squid, octopus, sea cucumber or jellyfish any less edible than a lobster or shrimp?  When I ate eel, I liked it — until someone said that it was eel.  So my friends knew never to announce we were eating eel.  Although possibly delicious, I never intentionally ate dog or monkey brains, but I did actually enjoy eating a pig’s ear once.

Mary:  “A man with a birdcage in his hand, taking birdie for a walk, is a common sight in China…but I have never seen a man followed by a dog.

Me:  It seems to be the delight of older men in cities to take their birds for a daily walk.  They hang the cages in the trees and listen to their lovely songs while they gather for a smoke and a chat with their human friends.  I have heard that swinging the cage gives the bird the illusion of being free.  I wonder if that’s true.

My countryside friends have told me that they sometimes have pet dogs.  I met one of these dogs, but it was not used to being touched or played with.  My friends expect their pet dogs to be short-lived.  It is no surprise when, one night, the dog doesn’t return home.  One friend even told me his mother went out looking for their dog and caught a neighbor in the act of skinning it.

The close relationship that we westerners might have with a pet dog is reserved for the peasant and his water buffalo.

To be continued…

September 10, 2009

It had become a birthday tradition — lying on our backs looking up at the night sky in the mountains and trying to catch the shooting stars of the annual Perseid meteor shower.

The night was right.  The sky was dark.  The stars twinkled above, little more than pinpricks of light reaching to infinity.

In the stillness and the waiting, imagination and animation — the dot whizzing by was a satellite, the blinking lights were planes, the particularly bright  and stationary light was certainly a space station.

In time, the wonder of the immensity of what the sky held took over.  How many light years was I looking at?  Would any of the shooting stars land as meteorites?

And then, I saw it.  I had been looking at it for a long time, but finally realized that the Milky Way was spread out and visible above me.  Such vastness and yet such intimacy!

The next shooting star reminded me that I was actually watching death.  I thought how wonderful to go out spectacularly in a blaze of light.

September 6, 2009

I understand that some people are fortunate enough to be shunned by bedbugs.  I, however, attract these little critters all over the world.  The worst stories I have about bedbugs were in the U.S., but this incident got me out of bed in Penang, Malaysia, in 1994.

Sept. 22, 1994

Penang attracts me more than other parts of Malaysia, partly because it seems so familiar.  It’s mainly Chinese and the buildings look remarkably similar to my own Taipa village in Macau, but with the addition of some velvety, sandy, wide beaches, friendlier people, and more night life.

There are also many relatives here of the mosquitoes and cockroaches of Taipa, where I live in Macau.  And, I have made unhappy acquaintance with the bedbug of the rhyme, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bedbugs bite.”  These merciless critters resist bug sprays and attack when and where one is most vulnerable–sleeping in bed.  Their bite is distinguished from common mosquitoes by the size (more like welts), extreme itchiness that lasts for days, and the neat rows of bites, making me feel like a bedbug’s cafeteria.  Ugh!

The only mixed blessing of being tortured by bedbugs was that it got me out of bed at 6 a.m. to walk around the awakening city.  In the sunrise, I discovered an amazing amount of activity at the Buddhist temple.  The air was thick with the smoke of joss sticks, and people came and went in walking traffic jams.  The next night, I splurged on a more expensive, and hopefully less bedbug-infested hotel.

Lantern Festival in Penang had its own special modern touch.  There was a parade with a lantern of the AIDS virus and a warning.  Also,  knowing that Chinese prefer to hide such children from view, I felt touched by seeing several trishaws (large 3-wheel bikes) in the parade that held smiling, waving retarded children.  Since Malaysia is multicultural, there was  an integration of cultures celebrating Chinese Lantern Festival.  I like the feeling there and enjoyed a show of  Indian dancing after the parade.

September 3, 2009

In 1994, an American friend named Harriet and I visited Malaysia together.  Here are some observations of my friend, and Malaysia, as described in my book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird, published in 2006.

Sept. 17, 1994

“I didn’t quite understand what you meant when you said we’d be living in our sweat,” Harriet said after another sweltering day in Asia.  This trip has been hard for her, especially since she’s used to the American mid-west’s mild summers and cold winters.  But she has been a willing traveling companion.  I was surprised at how many pictures she took of just about everything.  She explained that she doesn’t retain a visual memory of people or places when she travels.  Instead, her memories are sensual ones encompassing the “feeling” of the experience.  I, on the other hand, hold visual details that I can re-play in my mind’s eye.

Now that Harriet has flown home, I’m alone in Malaysia for a few more days.  As hot and uncomfortable as it was for her, I was very glad to be able to share my world with her.  Before coming to Malaysia, we celebrated the Jewish New Year with Russell’s family in the Chinese countryside, eating apples and honey for a sweet year.  The children played a Jewish game she taught them, while I danced a Jewish dance with Russell’s mom.

Harriet found the constant gray skies of Hangzhou depressing.  I understood because I, too, long for the blue skies of California when I’m in China.  Even Macau, not so polluted and surrounded by sea, rarely has deep blue skies.  My American and Australian students in Macau high school used to say that the sky was too close and felt like it was smothering them.

Harriet and I had a very good time visiting my Chinese friends living temporarily in Malaysia.  They took us to the picturesque mountains of Cameron Highlands where we got happily lost on the small roads in the hills among the tea farms.  I had never been in a butterfly farm before and my camera went crazy with all the close-ups possible of multicolored butterflies.  Eating a succulent steamed crab while looking out upon the Strait of Malacca and imagining all the trade that has passed through there was another memorable day together.

Harriet and I wandered together among the friendly, colorful people and flowers of Kuala Lumpur.  In an extensive museum ringed by jungle vegetation, we learned more about the Malay, Indian, Chinese mixture of people that makes up largely Moslem Malaysia.  One display that caught my eye was an “amok catcher,” a tool for holding and restraining someone who was running amok.  But the permanent haze of pollution blanketing the city, and the smell of clove cigarettes wherever men gathered told me that I would not like to live here.

To be continued…

In 1991, I traveled to Hohhot — a beautiful city in China that I never could learn to pronounce properly.  At that time, the rule was that foreigners could not stay in the homes of the Chinese residents.  It had never been a problem in the southern part of China if, as one of my friends said, “I didn’t come too often or stay too long.”  But I found out that authorities in northern China didn’t feel that way.

August 17, 1991

I was rudely routed out of my bed at midnight by the police!  They took me from Scott’s home where I felt warm and wanted and put me into a Chinese hotel since all the hotels were full of tourists for the Nadamu Festival.  My blood boiled.  My fist hit the wall in fury at the segregation and humiliation I had felt many times in China.

Russell explained that the north of China was stricter about the government policy of not allowing foreigners to sleep in the homes of Chinese people.  Scott was angry and his family looked miserable.  They had tried to convince the police that it was not comfortable for me to be in a Chinese hotel where no one spoke English, and all the hotels for foreigners were full.  But, they were fined anyway.  They wouldn’t tell me how much they had to pay.

August 18, 1991

We tried rowing on a very beautiful, large lake today, but there was a plant taking over the water that made it quite impossible to row through it.  The effect was more like bumper cars with the other boats that were attempting to plow through the water too.  We didn’t get too far out into the lake, but the day was warm and lovely.  The colors of the water, surrounding mountains, and sky enhanced the backdrop for taking pictures.  There is an arid feel to this area that reminds me of  Israel.

Scott is making plans to join a joint venture company and start building a better future than he can have in teaching.  He has a girlfriend he wants to marry, but she comes from another province.  He isn’t ready to give up yet, but it’s very hard for two people from different provinces to get the government’s permission to marry.

August 23, 1991

Hohhot was an endless train ride from Hangzhou.  We stopped in Beijing for some Peking Duck, a hot shower, and some sleep.  As we were nearing the stop closest to Russell’s village, his eyes and face lit up with excitement.  He said excitedly, “I am of this land.  The land will not perish.  I will not perish either.”  I was glad to see his exuberance.  Sometimes it takes going far away to appreciate coming home.

August 25, 2009

During the summer of 1991, I made it to Hohhot, China, which was full of many surprises.

August 15, 1991

They did it!  The father-daughter taxi team asked me to buy a carton of cigarettes as a “thank you” to their source of tickets for sleepers to Hohhot.  They took us to pick up the tickets.  Who was their source?  The man who prints the train tickets!  Thankfully we were able to get some sleep on the long trip to Hohhot.

Scott, one of Russell’s classmates whom I’d met at school in Hangzhou, welcomed us to his family’s home.  This city is very big.  Scott and his sister have led us on some long bike rides to introduce their hometown to us.  Scott has been an avid stamp collector for many years, and showed us his impressive collection.  Although he has stamps from all over the world, I like the ones from Asian countries best.  They are like little elegant art pieces.  He’d particularly love more stamps from Taiwan.

Tomorrow we are going out to see the Nadamu Festival.  It is a massive event, bringing in thousands of Mongolians from the outlying areas to compete in horseback riding and camel racing.

August 16, 1991

We saw Mongolians racing bareback on their sturdy, small Mongolian horses, and others sped on the backs of camels.  I’m so glad our visit coincided with this incredible festival.  The Mongolians had set up yurts that we were invited to visit.  Mongolians are nomadic.  This is the rounded home that Mongolians set up wherever they live.  Inside, it was spacious.  And now I have the indelible memory of being welcomed by a Mongolian official inside a large yurt at the festival.  As a foreigner, he honored me by asking a woman with him to sing a Mongolian song in greeting.

After the melodious greeting, he asked me to sing something.  Actually, I have quite a terrible voice, but how could I say “no” to this VIP without offending him?  So, I sang a rousing “Jingle Bells” to honor the occasion.  At least it was peppy and not too out of tune.

August 17, 1991

Who knows why something pops into a traveler’s head and must be obeyed?  Although I’m not much of a horseback rider, riding a horse across the grasslands sounded like something I had to do in Mongolia.  And Russell had told me that he always wanted to ride a horse.  So, at my request, the family arranged a day’s outing to the grasslands.  They couldn’t see much point in it themselves because the landscape gets quite boring after a while.

However, there was something special about being on a horse in the grasslands.  I wish I could say I galloped across the grasslands, but I wasn’t capable of that.  Russell got to go a little faster for a short time.  I just let my imagination fly over the grasslands on horseback and felt very satisfied — and safe.

To be continued…

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