I held onto two events rather desperately last week to counter-balance  a world going wildly wonky.

Having lived in Taiwan, I like to hear good news from that relatively small, remote place we usually don’t hear about.  The news showed gay people there happily celebrating their right to marry.  The second beacon of light came from children following the lead of eloquent Greta Thunberg of Sweden in passionately, unrelentingly, continuing to demonstrate one day a week to demand the world recognize the present and future dangers of climate change.

Fifty-five years have passed since the grown-up heroine Rachel Carson’s book, “Silent Spring,” warned us of the many ways we humans are killing our planet, and ultimately, ourselves.  Why weren’t we listening?

Last week, I remembered a necklace  I once had, but could never quite put around my neck.  It was a miniature coat hanger — the symbol of what was used to abort babies in a time when abortion was not legal.  But it seems I threw away that necklace too soon as more and more states are making abortion illegal again.

And last week I heard a compelling plea from the President of Columbia University that we must become ever more vigilant about the attacks on what Americans hold dear about our government.

And then there was another mass shooting spread across the news in Virginia Beach where it’s legal to bring guns into buildings.

I was born while the Holocaust was raging on the other side of the sea, and my father was being sent there to fight a war.  I lived through the turbulent, tumultuous 1960’s.  But now, more dangerous even than guns, is a mean-spiritedness that is taking over the world.  Sometimes it maims; sometimes it kills; sometimes it wounds slowly, but deeply.

Last week, I saw it as the insidious Ebola virus so seriously, dangerously, and cleverly depicted in “The Hot Zone” as it calmly mutates into the best way to kill humans.

In last week’s comics, Dennis the Menace talks with Mr. Wilson about the news.  Mr. Wilson explains that he likes to stay informed of what’s happening every day in the world.  But he adds, “Even though most of the news these days isn’t great news.  Boy!  I sure miss the good ol’ days!”  And Dennis remarks, “You think there’ll be some good ol’ days left for ME?”

And I think, “Maybe not, Dennis.  So sorry.”







January 27, 2011

It is natural for tourists to compare their native country to the ones they are visiting.  Actually, this is one of the most fascinating aspects of traveling the world — meeting other cultures first hand.  However, tourists will come and go, but  immigrants have a long term, greater investment in their adopted countries.  They are making a commitment, and undoubtedly, there is often ambivalence in transplanting themselves in different soil.   Some of the friends I met in China have made the U.S. their permanent home.  It has been fascinating for me to watch their immigration process in action over the past decade or so.

A decade or so ago, the straightest and smoothest path for Chinese to get into the U.S. was by getting into a graduate school.  Of course, you had to qualify for such schools, but once here, most of the Chinese students I knew were able to find ways to remain after they had finished school.  Jobs after graduation managed to get them permanent status, leading eventually to a green card and for citizenship for those who wanted it.  Those who did not come in through the student route often resorted to clever and circuitous paths to  lie their way in.  Once in illegally, some stayed illegally, while others employed immigration lawyers to find a way.  It was not easy and, in several families I know of, required long years of being separated from spouses and children.  But, a decade ago, no one predicted that China would rise so quickly and provide decent jobs and salaries.  In those years, the chance to pursue opportunities in the U.S. was a precious one that few who got to the U.S. would give up.

Language was often a determining factor in how well families acclimated to life in the U.S.  Sometimes it was one spouse only who knew English well enough to communicate.  Sometimes, like in immigrant families around the world, the child of the family had to become the family spokesperson.  Generally, of the friends I know, those who arrived without knowing much English still don’t know English well and didn’t take adult classes to learn.  They get along on baby English, much as I get along on baby Chinese when I’m in China and have to rely on my friends for complicated language interactions.

Although the U.S. hasn’t been the easiest country to immigrate to, those Chinese friends who are U.S. immigrants admit that the U.S. is the friendliest one to immigrants.  Even though rules of immigration tightened up after 9/11, those immigrants who attain permanent status find it easier to bring in relatives.  The diversity of the U.S. assures them a place among immigrants from other countries.  They do not stand out in the fabric that weaves American society.  And they are grateful for the equality America offers them.

However,  many Chinese immigrants I know  remain firmly tied to their Chinese roots.  Like other immigrant groups, they gravitate to places where they can congregate and speak the language they are most comfortable with.  They love their own types of food best and decorate their American homes in similar Chinese styles.  Few, if any, have Americans that they call “friends.”  That divide is still too wide and deep to cross.  Some keep up with American media; others stick to easily available newspapers in Chinese.  In their communities, they find Chinese doctors, lawyers, dentists, merchants of anything and everything they could want.  And with internet, webcams, and cheap phone service, often daily contact with relatives back in China goes a long way to curing any homesickness.

And while they definitely value the freedom they have in the U.S., some quietly look upon Americans as good-natured, naive, rather childish, and lacking the drive and self-discipline that Chinese excel in for themselves and their children.  One friend once told me that homeless people in the U.S. are homeless because they want to be –  a combination of the lazy happy hobo and surfer dude images.  While volunteering in mainland China is still in its infancy, Americans fully embrace volunteering in many forms. She had recently joined an organization called Tzu Chi, a worldwide organization that began in Taiwan with Buddhist principles and grew into a well-respected international volunteer service.  I joined her and her Tzu Chi group one day giving dinner to the homeless.  She was shocked.  These people were not the happy homeless she envisioned.  They were dirty, smelly, hungry, and mostly mentally ill — the unfortunate driftwood of American society, given medication and sent out into the streets to fend for themselves.

Most of my Chinese immigrant friends are doing extremely well financially.  Whether they would be richer if they had stayed in China during the last decade and ridden the rise of China equally to their incomes today, no one can know.  One who speaks of herself and her family as middle-class does not accept that she is, in fact, far higher on the economic ladder than the vast majority of Americans.  But, she and her family are the consummate consumers that supposedly make the American and Chinese economies turn.

The parents will most likely live out their lives precariously straddling two cultures – east and west.  Some may return to China in their retirement years.  Their children will grow into the hybrids that children of first generation immigrants become.  Some may intermarry.  And some may even assimilate eventually into American society.  True mixtures of American and Chinese cultures, I wonder how many of them will be ambivalent immigrants.

Comments?? E-mail to Suellen@ZimaTravels.com

November 24, 2010

When I was a young child, Thanksgiving meant a very looong drive from Massachusetts to Long Island, New York, where I slept on two armchairs put together, was able to play with my three cousins, and only excitement kept us from freezing on a New York City sidewalk watching the famous and unique balloons of the Macy Day Parade.  I don’t remember the turkey very much, but I’m sure we ate well and I always loved my aunt’s sugar cookies.

A later Thanksgiving memory clearly sees my mother and my grandmother in another kitchen happily chewing on the carcass of the turkey.  They both had teeth then and thoroughly enjoyed eating like scavengers rather than politely cutting up slices of turkey.  When I was married,  I can’t remember any particular Thanksgivings cooking turkey for my family, but I do remember that it took a lot of planning and effort to produce a “good” turkey dinner.  I breathed a sigh of relief when turkeys came with thermometers in them that conveniently popped up when done.

Israelis don’t celebrate  Thanksgiving, and turkey dinners were not easily available, but there was a wonderful meat called schwarma that was sold by street vendors.  They carved slices off of a huge slab going round and round as it cooked and handed it to you in a wonderful pita.   Although schwarma could be lamb, I was told it was usually basically turkey meat spiced up and put on a rotisserie.  It didn’t taste anything like a Thanksgiving turkey, but was inexpensive and incredibly tasty.

When I went to live in China, there was no Thanksgiving and no turkey.   However, Thanksgiving was alive and well in the small community of American foreigners living in Macau when I lived there.   Somehow, someone  managed to get REAL turkeys from Hong Kong for Thanksgiving, but only for Thanksgiving.  I, like others,  looked forward to that feast for the whole year.  I don’t remember who cooked the turkeys, but we all brought potluck dishes to go with it, invited some of our Chinese friends, and happily stuffed ourselves in the traditional overeating of an American Thanksgiving.

In Taiwan, I lived for awhile with an American musical missionary.   She was a dynamo of energy from Texas, but had been in Taiwan for many years as a music professor at a university in Taichung.   She  lived in a charming,  old and beautiful  Japanese style house.  Her faithful companion was a small dog ugly enough to be cute.  Although over the years she had become more Chinese than American,  she always had Thanksgiving at her home for a variety of American expats and Chinese friends.   I don’t recall where the turkey came from, but the meal was a superb mixture of American and Chinese cooking.  My contribution was to wash all the dishes.   But the festivities didn’t end with dessert.   Since the majority of her friends were also musicians and singers, every gathering ended with an impromptu concert of professional quality.

Occasionally back in the U.S. to visit my parents on extended stays, Thanksgiving moved from our kitchen to restaurants that put together family style meals for that day.   It took a lot of the hard work out of it, but kept the good taste of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

With my parents dead, and no family living around me, I have either ignored Thanksgiving or sometimes invited friends to a catered Thanksgiving dinner given in my retirement community.   More recently, I have spent Thanksgiving at my father’s grave site.  It’s in a peaceful, quiet, park-like setting.  Although only my father is buried there,  a picture of all  four of us together is on the head stone.  From the grave site, I can see the Pacific Ocean which holds my mother’s and brother’s ashes, drawing us all together again.  I liked Thanksgiving there, but now I have no car and it’s difficult to get there.  So, this year I’ll walk along Laguna Beach as I so love to do, refresh myself with the waves and the sand, and meet some friends at a restaurant for a Thanksgiving dinner.

I have so many things to give thanks for.  It’s a good day to remember that.

If you wish  to make a comment, please e-mail Suellen@ZimaTravels.com


Do you know how mushrooms grow on a mushroom farm? Greg, my former student from years ago when I taught in Taiwan, took me to a village outside Taichung that specializes in growing mushrooms. It was an abnormally cold day in spring when we went, which added to the moist gloom that mushrooms like to grow in.
We walked along the rows of cylinders under the tent and pulled mushrooms growing out of the tops, later to be replaced by other seeds growing into mushrooms. It was great fun! Our bags full, we filled our stomachs with a skewer of fat mushrooms freshly grilled. What a mushroom feast!
We followed the mushroom feast with a cherry tomato feast, handpicking the yellow and bright red tomatoes off the vines at a place down the road from the mushrooms. One for the basket, one for the mouth — each fresh tomato exploding sweetness and perfection into our mouths. “Eat this,” said the proprietor. It was fresh corn on the cob — eaten without cooking and absolutely wonderfully sweet and crunchy. “From Japan,” we were told.
Sight followed site in the heavily wooded mountains (so different from the dry, treeless southern California hills), each place filled with cultural information Greg was happy to relate.

September 27, 2008

     Walking to a park in Taiwan isn’t easy.  The roads are hazardous to all — with barrages of motor scooters and cars and exhaust fumes.  Normally polite Chinese turn into something else altogether when a car or a scooter seat is under them.  It wouldn’t be so bad if scooters and pedestrians could use the side lanes for bike lanes.  But cars are solidly blocking the side lanes.

     That wouldn’t be so bad if pedestrians could walk on the sidewalks.  But motor scooters are not only parked there, they are also ridden in both directions on the sidewalks.

     That wouldn’t be so bad, but the little cubicles called stores that line the street have no back entrance.  Thus, loading and unloading takes place on the sidewalks too.  Often a distrusting expensive car owner parks his car right in the store while he’s working.  That, by itself, wouldn’t be so bad except that each store must have a puppy or small dog to sniff and challenge every passerby.

     Now, that might be manageable except for the street and sidewalk vendors who set up shop right in your path.  Little rocking horses might line the sidewalk, followed by piles of shoes.

     I passed a store selling flashy new cars that lined the side of the road and, of course, the sidewalk.  Next to it was a car repair shop for the many cars that lose battles in the fight they wage with too many other cars and aggressive drivers.  Of course, they do most of the repair work on the sidewalk or side of the road.

     Taiwan is by no means a poor country.  Its prices rival the U.S., and money is plentiful.  However, it retains a gritty, grimy, over-crowded, jumbled appearance more like mainland China than Hong Kong.  They must prefer it this way.

     A city park is like an oasis in the desert.  It brings peace, serenity, some quiet, trees, flowers, and nature — while high buildings soar above and around it.  Among the growing things are brightly dressed, running, hopping, playful children.  It almost could be anywhere.  However, the arched bridges over the little lake, the pavilions, the Chinese characters on the buildings, the old people doing tai chi, and the young people gaily babbling in Chinese distinguish it as a park on the island of Taiwan.

     Everyone plays.  The mothers and fathers play with the children.  A quite pregnant wife runs heavily to pick up a fallen kite her husband is trying to keep aloft.  A crippled husband, supporting himself with two crutches, plays Frisbee (but with a hole in the middle of it) with his wife.  A middle-aged mother sits with her son who has no hair and looks like he will not live to see another springtime.

     A mother comes by with an unusual assortment of children.  Two are beautiful Chinese girls.  A boy is an obvious Caucasian-Oriental mix.  Somehow the physical characteristics of each parent look uncomfortably combined — Caucasian eyes with Oriental eyelids.  The youngest little girl is blond, not at all Chinese-looking, and obviously underdeveloped and sickly.  All eat strawberry ice cream cones with enjoyment.

     The little boy begins to speak with me in fluent English.  Then, his mother begins to chat with me.  The two Chinese girls are her sister’s children.  She herself is married to an American and they live in the U.S., presently Las Vegas.  She asks what I’m doing in Taichung.  She explained that the little girl was born quite premature and has already had corrective surgery for a variety of problems.  She told me about two big, new, glamorous hotels opening up in Las Vegas.  She likes the idea of being able to buy a nice house in Vegas for a fraction of the sum of a house in Taiwan.  Plus, her American passport renders her unable to buy a home in Taiwan.

     She said she hardly knows her hometown, Taichung, after ten years away.  I think of myself and how alien I feel in the U.S. now, and I understand.  She then recommends several American style restaurants she has found in the area.  She seems more comfortable in the pseudo-American environment than in her own.  She excuses herself to go off to McDonald’s.  Then, back to the glitziness and glamour of Las Vegas.

     I pass an old man who squats timelessly and silently by his fishing pole in the lake.  On the way back home, I stop at the Buddhist shrine in the corner with the too-loud Chinese music blaring from a semi-elaborate puppet stage.  I stop and watch alongside the sole spectator — a Down syndrome child dressed brightly in yellow.  He sometimes seems to respond to the action of the play, and sometimes converses with an invisible friend.  The puppets are dressed and masked rather elegantly, as in Chinese opera.  They do not sing as in Chinese opera, but there is a lot of monotonous, loud music.  The boy in yellow does not move from the spot, while other children playing on the playground totally ignore the efforts of the puppeteer and his smoking assistant who activates and shuts off the very loud music.

     An older lady comes by on her motor scooter with groceries arranged efficiently in, on, and around the motor scooter.   Without a glance at the puppet show, she removes her anti-pollution facemask and burns paper money to the gods in the shrines.  This done, she scooters off.

     Among the many things I don’t understand is why the puppet stage is angled in a corner with little room and no chairs for spectators.  But then, there is only one spectator plus me after all.  The father comes for the boy in yellow.  The puppeteer continues as though he is playing to a full house.  Or, perhaps he doesn’t notice, or doesn’t care.  He seems to be a man who plays with his work.

This is the entry in my travel journal on March 10, 1990, and appears in my book, Memoirs of a Middle-aged Hummingbird.

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