Songyi Zhang’s America
By Songyi Zhang
When you get on the Guangzhou metro, you see a gray-haired old man and a pregnant woman standing by the hand railing while two rows of seats facing one another are occupied with young Chinese in their twenties and thirties. You wonder why these seated people are so indifferent. After all, this car is specialized for those who are in need.
“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi,” my best friend said to me.
When you are walking on a path with beautiful lawn and plants on one side, and a river on the other, you can’t help finding litter under a shrub or a stone bench. The grass is trampled, revealing clear marks of pedestrians’ foot prints and bicycles’ tire prints. You wonder why people are oblivious to such damage.
“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi,” my cousin said to me.
When you are in line for your turn to pay the bill in a hospital, people behind you keep pushing forward, leaving zero space in between. You haven’t got organized after your transaction is done, the next person has already occupied the window. You nearly lose your cool but you realize just as your family and friends have told you before
“This is the problem of Chinese people’s Suzhi.”
Over the past two months while I was in China visiting family and friends, I kept hearing the disappointing comments about Chinese people’s Suzhi—that is, personal quality. As more and more rural people flood in major cities to make a living, I often saw unacceptable public conduct—jaywalkers, parking on the sidewalk, smoking in a non-smoking building, dogs and kids defecating on the street, so on and so forth.
My dad joked that I had been in the U.S. for too long. That’s not true. Two and a half years being away from home won’t completely change me into an American. But it does change my impression of urban Chinese people. Where are the Chinese virtues that we boasted of for over two thousand years? Where is the practice of respecting the elderly and caring for the young? What about observing the public order and making the city as clean as our homes?
The outside world utterly differs from what we learn in school. I’m saddened. When the Chinese top leaders visit Russia, for instance, will they be ashamed to see the “Do Not Litter” sign in Chinese? Will the sign that says “Keep Quiet” in Chinese characters embarrass them while they dine in a French restaurant?
By Songyi Zhang
My husband had a medical emergency last week. Thank goodness the episode is over and we’ve returned to a normal life. But this incident taught me a lot about health care in America, and I have to say I was impressed.
The story began on Tuesday when my husband was scheduled to have cataract surgery. At the pre-op room, he was aware that the tightness in his chest had recurred. After notifying the doctors and nurses, we were told the surgery was postponed, and my husband would be sent to the emergency room for an immediate heart checkup. Shortly, a team of four or five uniformed, well-trained paramedics arrived and drove us to the hospital, which is about a three-minute ride. Outside the surgery center, an ambulance with a fire truck parked behind were standing by.
In that full minute, I thought I was in a reality show. I had never been in an ambulance. Nor had I encountered such a big-cast emergency. Sitting in the front seat of an ambulance, I had various thoughts. But the multi-button control panel around me was too complex for my mind to take in. As the ambulance moved along, my heart beat faster. I was on an urgent mission, I said to myself.
Long story short, after my husband transferred to the emergency room, he was so conscious that he kept correcting the doctors and nurses that he had chest tightness but not chest pain. The cardiologist was able to schedule him to do a procedure in no time. By noon, he underwent an angioplasty after tests found a couple of blood vessels to the heart were blocked. The procedure went smoothly and he had to stay overnight in the hospital for observation.
I was impressed by the efficiency of the medical staff who dealt with my husband’s case. The nurses who helped him to go through that difficult evening were friendly and responsible. They patiently answered my questions. I felt relieved. That’s quite different from China. The Chinese nurses are often too busy to communicate with the patient’s family. There are too many patients and not enough nurses in China. Quantity overwhelms quality. Perhaps hospitals in China should think about tying hospital payments to patient satisfaction.
I was also impressed by the advanced medical equipment used in the hospital in America. For instance, it was the first time I saw computerized IV injection and a digital bleeding stopper. TV remote is connected with the buzzer to the nursing station. The barcode on the patient’s wristband is like a signature that allows nurses to access the patient’s profile. A tiny piece of stent made of metal wire can unblock my husband’s artery. How amazing modern technology is.
Most importantly, I appreciate the great work the medical staff has done. It’s still beyond my belief that my husband is released from the hospital safe and sound in such a short time.
By Songyi Zhang
If you ask a Chinese in his twenties or thirties—are you a fanglu? you’ll be very likely to get a positive answer. These days the number of Chinese fanglu (literally, house slaves) grows as quickly as the domestic economy. They have to work even harder than most people to pay their huge mortgages. My two-month stay in China refreshes my memory of the costly housing.
The property price boom appears across the country, mostly in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chongqing. The real estate market price has gone up double or even triple in less than a decade. Take my home city, Guangzhou, for an example, one square meter on average cost about five thousand RMB (approx. 840 US dollar per 10.8 sq feet) ten years ago. Now, it costs at least ten thousand RMB per square meter. So the price of a two-bedroom flat can easily come up to one million three hundred thousand RMB (approx. two hundred thirty thousand US dollars).
That means to buy a house in China, you have to be a millionaire. But even in the well-developed United States, millionaires only make up about one percent of the total population. In China, there’re many upstarts becoming millionaires in recent years. They create such a bubbly international scene that Chinese people have a shocking power to spend money, buying luxury goods and possessing private vineyards, yachts and jet planes. But the world doesn’t understand how many common people in China are still struggling for a better place to live.
I happened to be in Guangzhou this January when the central government enacted new rules to limit house purchase. Thus, the mortgage interest is higher for those who already own a house and attempt to buy a second or third house. The measures aim to curb the skyrocketing realty investments. As a result, the housing market price in Guangzhou, for instance, came down ten percent in the beginning of the year.
However, that minor decrease doesn’t relieve much of the fanglu’s burden. Today, newlyweds would rather live by themselves than with the husband’s parents. So young couples who plan to get married are under tremendous pressure to purchase a million-yuan-worth flat. By the time they pay off the house, they may turn gray-haired people. While young people can work hard to achieve their goals, the older labor workers may never live in a house of their own. They’re the typical “sandwich class”—neither too underprivileged to receive government housing subsidies, nor sufficiently well off to make the down payment. The housing market price seems to go faster than what they earn and save.
No wonder people often say, those who have a house can afford more, those who don’t have a house can hardly afford one. And between these two extremes live the fanglu struggling under the weight of their mortgages.
By Songyi Zhang
A week ago, I accompanied my husband for cataract surgery. At seven o’clock the waiting room of the surgery center was filled with patients and their families. A nurse came in the waiting room to call the patients’ names. On the other side, two receptionists were helping the patients register while a television blasted from the corner.
Same as in China, patients need to read through and sign an agreement prior to the surgery. I doubted my husband could read the small print because both his eyes had cataracts and the one scheduled for surgery already had been soaked in three kinds of eyedrops, four times before we arrived.
A woman receptionist thoughtfully read the gist of the documents and pointed my husband to the signature line. I noticed on the desk there was a sign for language assistance. Apparently, many immigrants come to this surgery center. Translators are available, from Arabic to Vietnamese. I glimpsed through the list. Ha, I can speak two of them—Cantonese and Mandarin. Maybe I can work as a translator here.
We arrived at 7:15 a.m.. But the surgery didn’t start until 9:20 a.m.. In between those two hours, my husband was sedated in a bed in a pre-op room. Each cubicle on both sides of the hallway was separated by ceiling-to-floor curtains.
Americans really respect individual privacy. On the wall is a sign of “Protecting Patient Policy.” It reads, “All health care personnel must obtain permission from the patient prior to discussion any health care issue in front of a patient’s visitors.”
While in a normal consultation, doctors come to the patient in a private room; in China, patients have to line up outside the doctor’s office for their turns. Sometimes the anxious ones even peek inside the doctor’s office.
As we were waiting, four nurses rotated to check on my husband, asking him the same kind of yes-or-no questions—Do you have this problem or that problem? Are you allergic to this or that? What are you here for?
“I’m here for a cataract removal on my left eye,” my husband said the fourth time to a nurse. By then, the IV bag that was injected into him was about empty. I didn’t expect that he would be treated like a severe patient. He was even attached to several electrodes on the chest and a nasal cannula for respiratory. The last time I saw these devices was when my mother was on the verge of dying. I couldn’t figure out how many eyedrops the nurses had applied to my husband before they pushed him into the surgery room.
About an hour later, I met him in another room. He looked calmer than I thought he would. As I saw a girl patient licking a strawberry popsicle on the other side, my husband told me he also had a cup of cranberry juice and two crackers. I was glad he was in good care. My dad didn’t have such good care after his appendix removal surgery in China.
The next day we received a get-well card from the surgery center. What a thoughtful gesture — something you’d never see from a Chinese clinic.
By Karen Zhang
Coming from a southern Chinese city that has weathered numerous tropical storms over the years, I took little concern about the hurricane warnings in America. In fact, the American weathermen seem to be a little too melodramatic about the sudden change of weather. In the Washington D.C. region for instance, when the temperatures in the summer get a bit too high, the weatherman will use words like “record high”, “scorching hot” or “unbearably warm”, as if Chicken Little is announcing “the sky is falling”.
I felt this way until last October, when Hurricane Sandy landed on the east shore of America, particularly in New Jersey and New York City where I used to spend holidays. Two incidents happened to draw me closer to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
We visited Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge twice, before and after Sandy. The Refuge is mainly a wetland facing the Atlantic Ocean. With the pine tree forest and a number of fresh water enclosures, migrant birds and local fowls find home in this rich habitat. Not to mention the wild ponies grazing freely in herds. Vacationers in late summer enjoy the long coast line inside the Refuge. Tourists come as far as Quebec, Canada (and me from China, of course).
However, our second trip in November to the Refuge showed a gloomy picture. Not only because the season had changed, but also largely because of Hurricane Sandy. The topography in some areas was significantly altered. Where there was used to be a dense forest of pine and other soaring trees, now was a hollow clearing, with a number of trees bent, twisted and fallen. Where there was used to be a bike lane straight to the seashore, now was a path blocked by a knee-high sand dune. Where there was used to be a marsh with four feet high reefs, now was a fresh water pond, attracting winter fowls to dig their heads into the new territory for food. The beach in the fall was nearly vacant. A few tourists were busy picking up the treasure that Sandy brought to shore—countless shells in various shapes glistening with their charming colors in the mild sun.
If walking on a storm-ridden beach is my physical contact with the devastation by one of the strongest hurricanes in North American, a half-week heat shortage at home certainly has transported all my senses to the misery of those who live through blackouts and chill in their broken homes after Hurricane Sandy. I must have been spoiled by living in a heated house. In those nights when my house was cold like an ice hotel, underneath three layers of blankets and bundled with thick sweater and socks, I realized how vulnerable human beings are in the face of climate change.
By Songyi Zhang
These days I crave Lay’s wavy chips. I’m surprised at myself.
In China, potato chips are considered junk food. And of course, kids love junk food. Who doesn’t? But parents go nuts if they see their kids munching too many potato chips. In Southern China where I grew up, deep fried food is regarded as the chief culprit of sore throat and pimples. Fried potato chips are definitely unhealthy food. When I was a kid, I needed to hide behind my mother’s back to enjoy a few pieces.
In America, potatoes are a staple. Americans can prepare potatoes in a dozen ways, as creatively as Chinese prepare rice. Home fried potatoes are usually on the breakfast menu in American diners. Just in the first month after my arrival in America, I had tried French fries, baked potatoes, mashed potatoes and potato chips. Thank heavens Mom wasn’t around.
I remember how shocked I was when I was introduced to potato chips as a side dish. A common American lunch is a sandwich with a side dish, which includes apple sauce, soup, veggie salad or chips. At Panera Bread, a chain deli popular among university students, I saw a whole shelf of various potato chips and similar crispy junk food. They’re stashed in red, orange, white, green bulging bags. How can potato chips count as part of a meal?
My American classmates loved having chips in class. (That’s something Chinese students are not allowed to do—eating in class.) And they often told me a bag of chips was their supper when we had an evening class. I said nothing but was amazed. How can a bag of potato chips fill up a stomach? Having potato chips is like chewing a gust of wind.
I’m not sure whether my craving for chips these days is a sign of my having adopted American culture, but I’m still Chinese enough to feel guilty when I eat them.
By Songyi Zhang
When I first came to America, the small white U.S. Postal Service (USPS) delivery van caught my attention. Its steering wheel is on the right like the vehicles in Britain. At the time I was learning to drive in Pittsburgh, I thought to myself that the cute little delivery van is my dream car.
However, I’m afraid the white mail delivery vans won’t be on the street often in the future. Recently, I read the news about the closing of half of the USPS processing facilities around the country. As a result, the first-class mail delivery will slow, forcing many stamped letters to arrive in two days rather than one. Another source also said that the USPS plans to cancel mail delivery on Saturdays. All these changes aim to trim costs and avert bankruptcy.
It’s unheard of that a national postal service would go bankrupt. At least it can’t happen in China where postal service is state-owned. However, the USPS is an independent branch of the federal government. It competes in delivery service with private corporations like UPS and FedEx. The agency has to face the financial problems that every enterprise deals with. Good service relies on good profits.
Although individuals now prefer the convenience of email and online bill-paying, after people shop online, they’ll need package delivery. In China, we’ve seen increased shipping by China Postal Service because of online shopping. I hope the USPS will survive in this competition with other private package delivery services.
What disappoints me is that as the USPS keeps losing money, ordinary people are the ultimate victims. Poor people cannot afford expensive express mail postage, and now they may have to wait two days for their regular mail being delivered. What’s the meaning of “first-class mail” if the mails won’t be treated first class?
I thought postal service is as crucial as medical system and utility services to our everyday life. The USPS is one of the biggest employers in the country. If the agency cuts expenses, more people will lose jobs, too. The high national unemployment rate will continue.
I can only picture the USPS business falling into a bad cycle: poor service leads to fewer customers, and the agency will lose more money. I feel bad that the anger of ordinary people towards governments increases. Although the USPS doesn’t receive any tax dollars from the government, it is still under congressional control. Can the Congress do something to help the USPS stay alive?
By Songyi Zhang
Last month I attended an annual literary festival co-sponsored by the county public library. The event lasted a week, offering face-to-face meetings between the authors and the readers. As a reader and writer, I benefit a great deal from free events like this. Since I came to America two years ago I have become an avid English reader. Partly because of my Master’s program, partly—and I would say mainly—because of the conveniences the local library provides to the residents.
While I was frustrated about the limited collection in my university’s library, my senior classmate suggested to me that I should apply for a library card at the public library. “There you’ll find the titles you want without any trouble,” she told me. I thanked her for introducing me to the public library in America. I was amazed at the fast speed of the circulation system and the simple procedure of the user application. Above all, it was free.
Compared with the public library in my home city in China., America’s system is wonderful. In China, I have to pay a membership fee or deposit for a library card. If I want access to the rare book sections or specialized collections, I have to prove who I am in relation to my education and working background. All the red tape turned me off from entering the library, let alone borrowing books from there.
Taking advantage of the easy library access here, I’ve read more books than at any time in my life. Americans are lucky to have a good public library system. In Guangzhou, China, with a population of 10 million people, there are only two major public libraries. Both of them are downtown, close to one another. But in Fairfax County, Va., where I am living now, with a population of 1.1 million people, there are more than a dozen public libraries in the same network, not to mention residents in Fairfax County can also access the e-libraries in the neighboring counties and in Washington D.C. after obtaining their library cards.
What a huge contrast!
No wonder Chinese readers have tended to be book collectors – there’s no easy access to books like there is here. But with the help of various forms of e-readers, Chinese readers now can also access their favorite novels through the Internet, usually for little or no cost.
I now understand why some elderly Americans say they have grown up and grown old with their public libraries.
By Songyi Zhang
A few weeks ago after pressing the doctor to give him eye surgery, my husband could finally mark his calendar for a specific date, which is in three months. When we returned to the doctor’s office recently for a pre-operation meeting, we suggested the doctor operate on my husband’s other eye three weeks after his first surgery. But the doctor said, “I’m fully booked the first three months next year.” I was shocked. It was only late September. How many patients did the doctor give eye surgery on? If a cataract surgery was as simple as he said, wouldn’t the queuing for his care go quicker?
Situations like this happen to my other American family members. If they are lucky, they will see the doctor within three weeks. In most cases, it takes longer to get a surgery or an examination with the specified medical equipment, such as MRI and colonoscopy. It seems to me a patient has to wait a minimum of two months. Gosh! Who knows what will happen to a disease-ridden patient after two months? If lucky, the symptoms may have gone away by then.
I remember a couple of times the doctor had to change the appointment with my American family a few days prior to the appointment. His reasons always sounded legitimate because of emergency or unexpected circumstances. It was so easy for him to change the date but it was never easy for the patients. Besides biting lips from the agony, they had to put aside their to-do list on that particular day solely for this appointment. As a Cantonese idiom says, it’s such a long wait that our necks have gotten longer for it (because we need to crane our necks to look around for our turns).
The options for my American family were not good either. If the patient could not reschedule the appointment, he could switch to another doctor recommended by his doctor on the same day. I asked him how long he would have to wait for the rescheduled appointment. Another three weeks, he said.
I don’t understand why a doctor’s appointment takes so long in America. While many Chinese are looking up to America’s high quality life, waiting weeks and months for a doctor’s appointment certainly is not a model for the developing world to follow. Oftentimes, I don’t need a doctor’s appointment to see a doctor in Guangzhou, China. If I am ill, I go to the hospital. I may need to wait for hours there but at the end of the day, I’ll see the doctor.
I’m not sure if long waiting is a chronic problem in the U.S.. But I do notice there are a few walk-in medical clinics near where I live in America, which are often jammed with patients in need of all sorts of basic care, from a cold to a knee injury. Drug stores and supermarkets like Walgreens and Wal-Mart also provide medical assistance. Perhaps Americans are fed up with lengthy waits for basic healthcare.
By Karen Zhang
A few days ago I found a pair of gloves labeled “Smart Touch” in the store. Out of curiosity, I tried them on and showed to my husband who sat at a corner patiently waiting while I shopped.
“What do you think?” I asked, raising my gloved hand. On the tip of my thumb and index finger were small, yellow, anti-skid patches.
“Not bad,” my husband said appreciatively.
“Do you know what are these patches for?” I asked, wiggling my fingers.
“To pick your nose?”
We both burst into laughter.
“No—” I said patiently. I knew my technology-inert husband would have a wild guess but didn’t expect his imagination would have gone that far.
“There’re for the smartphone users,” I said matter-of-factly.
“How do you use them?”
“You can tap and swipe the iPhone screen without taking off the gloves like this,” I said, demonstrating on my three-month old iPhone 4S.
The mystery is solved. I didn’t plan to buy these gloves but at the end of the day, the techno-gizmo on clothing had convinced me to take them home. Simply because I am one of millions of Apple fans around the world.
“Smart Touch”, what a name for a pair of gloves! The addition of anti-skid patches on the finger tips has increased value and sensation to an ordinary daily item. I admire the manufacturer’s mind! (Are they made in China? Yes.) It is a bit hackneyed to say technology is changing our life. But indeed, I am feeling my post-iPhone life is changing. Before I owned a smart phone, my life was much simpler. Now I’m addicted to the virtual world. I care more about the up-to-the-minute online news, social network or emails. My private life is richer yet has less quiet moments.
Because of my new iPhone, I have to learn a whole new Macintosh operating system and spend more money on data usage and phone accessories. iPhone users are particularly keen on accessories. It’s predicted that the global smartphone accessories market will be $20.8 billion in 2012, including iPhone accessories of $6 billion.
Well, one thing I am sure of is the new pair of “Smart Touch” gloves cost twice as much as a pair of no-frills gloves.
By Karen Zhang
There is a well-known lyric in China: “The east is red, the sun rises. From China arises Mao Zedong.” On October 11, 2012, when the Swedish Academy announced that the winner of this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature is Chinese writer Mo Yan, my mind immediately brought up the tune. Yet, we should change the lyrics to “The east is red, the sun rises. From China arises the first Nobel Laureate of Literature.” Less than half an hour after the announcement from Stockholm, Mr. Mo’s works were sold out at China’s major online book sellers.
Like many Chinese, I haven’t read any of Mo Yan’s novels. My knowledge about Mo is limited to the movie Red Sorghum based on his novel by the same name. Born and raised in the countryside of northeast China, Mo writes about ordinary rural life, which resonates with me deeply. I am crafting a novel that takes place in a Chinese village. As a writer learning to write in my second language about my motherland, I have so many questions for Mr. Mo. First and foremost, when he started his first book, did he find it hard to get it published?
Over the past few months, I’ve been looking for literary agents in the U.S. to represent another manuscript of mine: a memoir. I am experiencing the long waiting time for responses and the rejections that every published writer says is a rite of passage. I see my literary path chilled but with a glimpse of hope. That glimpse of hope comes from my dedication to writing.
During my search for a break-out for my literary career in America, one thing I notice is that American publishers seem to care a great deal about sales. Chinese publishers may publish a book for the sake of literature. Like Mr. Mo said in an interview after the Nobel Prize announcement, as long as you render human truth, friendliness and beauty in the work, the Western readers will echo with you. His point soothes me.
By far, Mo Yan is not the most popular novelist in China, in either in the book market or in reputation. But his works which combine hallucinatory realism with folk tales, history and contemporary life in China are undoubtedly the epitome of rural Chinese life. I thank him for rendering these elements of traditional Chinese life as urbanization in China grows rapidly. This is what Chinese characteristics should mean — not tearing down old houses for new skyscrapers, not replacing natural habitats with parking lots, not dumping away folk culture for modernity in the name of keeping pace with times.
Mo Yan winning the Nobel Prize tells me that Chinese literature does not need to cater to the Western audience. If it’s good work, it will be well received anywhere. For American publishers, perhaps they should not neglect the art of literature while focusing so much on sales.
By Karen Zhang
Alert! The much-loved Big Bird is under attack by none other than this year’s U.S. presidential candidates. Oh, poor bird!
I feel sorry that Big Bird cannot escape the same rhetorical fate as China — which has become an American political campaign target. In the first presidential debate, Mitt Romney apologized to Big Bird after realizing he’d said something offensive to the moderator Jim Lehrer, in regard to his remark on stopping the federal subsidy to Public Broadcasting Service. He said, “I like PBS. I love Big Bird.” But does he really?
The following day, President Obama used Big Bird as a metaphor to deride his contender. Then Mitt Romney retorted, “Obama is spending time saving Big Bird. I am spending my time saving jobs.” The dispute went on and on like a schoolyard squabble.
This is my first time living in America during a presidential election year. The political atmosphere in this country is definitely heavier than I’d imagined. When I was in China, I heard a lot about the American presidential campaign. Young people like me look forward to the debates as a way to learn English. Above all, we carry the hope that someday public debates among top officials will be held in China. Most Chinese have a positive attitude about American politics.
Now I feel differently. American politicians talk way more than Chinese leaders. Perhaps because freedom of speech is what this country advocates and is built on, public figures like politicians seem to say whatever comes to mind without considering the feelings of their listeners. In the case of Big Bird, I would have never thought of a universal character loved by millions of children around the world would be dragged into the black hole of political spin.
When Republicans and Democrats both throw out campaign ads, slamming the opponent’s policy on China, I am resentful. This is American politicians’ rhetoric: when in good times, China is your friend; when in bad times, China is your foe. But Sino-U.S. relations are never regarded as chest to chest as is, for instance, the Japan-U.S. alliance. Suspicion always grows on both sides. But it’s not my position to judge the bilateral relation of both countries. My fury about the campaign ads is based no more than on Big Bird being attacked. I grew up watching Sesame Street in China. Why should a pure and lovable character in a children’s TV show turn into a bombshell in the adults’ world?
By Songyi Zhang
I don’t speak French, but when I visited Montreal for the first time this summer, I was completely immersed in a French-speaking environment. I couldn’t tell the difference between tourists or local people because the only language I heard on the street was French. Montreal’s cityscape – with its old sandstone churches, Victorian buildings and storefront patio restaurants — seems European to me, rather than North American.
Americans often seem to think of Canada as another state in their country, rather than a foreign country. Canadian students who study in the U.S. don’t consider themselves international students. However, I saw lots of differences between the two cultures.
Quebecois are proud of their French heritage. Many places are named after saints, so the road names tend to be very long. If I didn’t look Asian, the waitresses or the cashiers wouldn’t have spoken to me in accented English.
Montreal is a biker-friendly city. Many residents ride bikes instead of driving cars. In Montreal, you can borrow bikes right on the street from the public bike racks which are all digitally programed. Once you start the rental, the digital timer also begins. All the bikes have a global positioning system. So it’s easy to locate the lost bike. You can return the bike anywhere in the city. I heard this bike rental system is similar to that in France. No matter subway or buses, Montreal provides very good public transportation. I think this is what most American cities lack.
Perhaps because more people choose to ride bikes or walk, Montrealers are quite fit. During my three-day visit, I saw only a few overweight people on the street – unlike America where almost everyone is overweight. There were lots of young people in Montreal, thanks to several big universities like McGill and Concordia in the city. The nightlife flourished in summertime with visitors from everywhere.
Montreal is like a little Paris in North America during summer. All kinds of festivals are held one after another. While I was there, the Comedy Festival was on. Street performers played music and told jokes in public. Some even entertained the passersby through games. It was so much fun. I think I will return to Montreal for a long stay next time.
By Karen Zhang
These days I’ve frequently heard the phrase “new normal” particularly after the wildfires in Colorado neighborhood that swallowed hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of trees, after the record-breaking drought in the Midwest that killed crops, and after the unusual weekend floods in Northeast China affected hundreds of local lives.
It’s inevitable that global warming is pressing us day by day. I’m not sure if human’s tolerance of heat gets weaker or the climate change gets faster. Facing all types of unpredictable natural disasters, humans become so vulnerable. It’s like watching the debris from Japan’s tsunami last year now landing the west coast of the U.S., local people are frustrated because it is estimated more ocean trash will arrive on the shore later this year. I doubt that governments will invest too much money on the massive cleanup since the noise of cutting government spending is so loud.
I used to think America is quite an ecologically-conscious country. But as in China, only some cities stand out to make an effort of protecting the environment. When customers have to pay for their plastic bags in my home city, Guangzhou, I’m shocked to know most supermarkets in America give out free plastic bags. Where are the paper grocery bags that I saw in the American movies? When Chinese housewives recycle their used water to water plants or flush toilets, I’m surprised to see Americans leaving their running hoses on the lawn and lights on in vacant rooms.
A recent trip to New York City reminds me how much trash the New Yorkers produce a day. In that city, you’ll never miss seeing gigantic plastic bags of trash lining both sides of the street as if they are suggesting the trash collecting companies are seriously understaffed. I’m not sure how the city disposes millions of tons of trash but I do know the city dwellers have too much to waste.
Even though America is a developed country, there’s still a long way for the country to become a global model of living economically and environmentally. When the abnormal natural phenomenon really does become the new normal, it’ll be too late to make a change.
By Karen Zhang
I’m very annoyed with the 2012 U.S. presidential campaign. I live in the Washington D.C. region—I couldn’t be any closer to the spotlight. The campaign for the GOP is such a long haul, starting more than a year ago. Local TV stations have never missed a day since April 2011 to report on the Republican contenders. Virginia is considered a swing state in this year’s election. So the campaign ads from both the Republicans and the Democrats have gone viral on the public air. These ads are filled with negativity. To some extent, they’re eye-openers to me — in China you’d be given the death penalty for making such fierce criticism against the ruling government. Perhaps I should take the battle of campaign ads as an example of American freedom of speech.
The incessant TV campaign ads do no good for either candidate, but they do create substantial profits for the TV stations. As a viewer, I’ve become more angry than supportive. Neither Obama’s nor Romney’s proposed agenda is perfect. It bugs me that both of them have used China as a scapegoat for the high domestic unemployment rate. China is indeed the biggest provider of consumer goods for the United States but a coin has two sides. Without the government’s encouragement and the businessmen’s willingness to reduce manufacturing costs, the commercial deal with China won’t work. After all, China’s labor cost is not cheap compared to that of ten years ago. Why don’t the American politicians examine themselves what has gone wrong with their policies before pushing the faults on others? That’s so typical even in China’s leadership.
Long ago, I’ve learned the path to the White House is astronomically priced for any presidential candidate. But this year I learn the campaign ads have gone overboard, particularly in the swing states—Virginia is one of the few victims. I don’t think the voters in these states will be swung to either side after watching the same offensive ads a million times. At least too much advertising has antagonized me further about the November election. Over the weekends when I traveled to New York City and New Jersey, which don’t swing as much as Virginia, I realized how much I had missed the campaign-free TV commercials.
Alas, if I can’t get away from my the election politics, then I’ll just have to bear it for a few more months. God bless the Virginians!
By Karen Zhang
If you are talking on the phone while crossing a busy street in China, the likelihood of your getting hit by a car is close to a hundred percent. Thanks to the sign of “Yield to the Pedestrians” or simply the value of “people foremost” in the U.S., pedestrians who are engaged in their smartphones while walking are lucky enough to escape from accidents. But one cannot always be that fortunate.
A recent safety report shows that about 1,150 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms in the U.S. last year for injuries while walking and using a cellphone or some other electronic devices. The number shows no sign of reducing but instead, is on the rise.
On city streets, in suburban parking lots and in shopping centers, it’s a common sight: someone strolling while talking on the phone, texting with one’s head down, listening to music or playing a video game. The danger is as high as distracted driving.
Several times a distracted walker nearly bumped into me when I was walking. I couldn’t imagine if I were in a car. When pedestrians have their ears plugged, or vision blocked by their electronic devices, how can they hear the honks from an approaching vehicle? How can they be aware that the walking signal has turned red?
I won’t be surprised if I accidently hit a distracted walker in America, the fault will be on me instead of otherwise. I remember one time when it was supposed to be my turn to make a right turn. A jogger was totally oblivious of the no-walking signal and ran anyway in front of my car, showing angry body language at me. As he ran across the street, he adjusted his earphones as if to shun a real world that will someday cost him a life for his violation.
Although I’ve been living in the States for three years, I still don’t understand why pedestrians take for granted that they always have the right of way. When the pedestrian light is blinking as a warning, some people are still taking their time to cross the street. I still hurry across the street despite having the right of way because in China drivers never wait. If the number of walking injuries keeps climbing, I guess the next person who can develop a “wake up” app for distracted walkers will probably make big money.
By Karen Zhang
As the new school year starts, yellow school buses appear on roads across America. I was on a yellow school bus only once — when I joined the undergraduates from Chatham University on a field trip. The inside of the bus is as sturdy as its exterior impression. Hand bars are visible and accessible. Seat belts are installed in every seat. A high protection screen stands before the front row seats to provide safety when passengers fall forward at a sudden brake. There’re multi-mirrors around the driver’s seat to give specific reflections.
What make American school buses unique in design are the two hands of stop signs on either side of the bus. When the school bus stops, both hands will spread like a pair of warning wings. Vehicles around the bus on both directions must stop by law. I am really impressed by the way American school children are protected by the traffic law. In contrast, Chinese school children dying in traffic accidents because of shabby makeshift school buses is hardly news any more.
A car rental company in my hometown of Guangzhou, China, plans to import several yellow school buses from America in the hope of providing safe transportation for local school children. But each rental school bus is worth over a million yuan (approximately 200 thousand US dollars). Many parents are afraid that tuition and fees will increase to make up for the rental. However, in my opinion, it’s not a tough decision. What’s more valuable: a kid’s life or the cost for the kid to ride on a safe bus?
In fact, facing the sluggish economy, even American public schools are having a tough time buying new school buses. For example, the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area suffers horrific traffic, especially during rush hour. As a consequence, local school children cannot arrive at school on time. Although increasing school buses is on almost everyone’s wish list, getting more buses also means fewer stable jobs for teachers. I’m bewildered by the reason for the government spending cuts. If residents still pay the same amount of taxes, where does the cut money go? Why can public schools afford school buses in the past but not now?
Anyway, I just hope school children—whether in China or America—won’t be the victims of the haggling in the adults’ world. After all, their safety should be the priority.
By Karen Zhang
Although London Olympics has ended in a full stop, I still have regrets about this year’s games. This is the first time I’ve watched the Olympics outside of China, yet it’s also the first time I’m full of disappointment. It’s not because my mother country China did not top the gold medal count as she did in 2008. It’s also not because the opening or closing ceremony was eclipsed by the Beijing Olympics. My regrets come from the one network in America covering the Olympics—NBC.
NBC has undoubtedly performed its exclusive televised rights in America with a perfect score from their sponsors —but sadly, not from their viewers. I felt angry when I saw the caption of “previously recorded” every night before the prime time show. Only a fool will not understand there’s a time difference between London and the U.S.. So why does NBC still pretend they are the “first” to release the already-stale Olympic news? Why can’t the TV station broadcast the live game during the day and rerun the essence of a day’s games in the evening?
I think in this regard China’s TV stations have done a better job. Not to mention that four years ago Chinese audience could pick up the Beijing Olympics televised by major TV stations—national networks or local channels. The previous Olympic Games were guaranteed a live broadcast regardless of time differences.
If it wasn’t for the public’s outcry over NBC’s jingoistic Americanism, I probably wouldn’t have been able to watch athletes from China or other nations. In China, I would see non-Chinese athletes standing on the podium and hear various national anthems. But in America, I can see only a big American mug on the TV screen when “the Star-Spangled Banner” rose at a medal ceremony. Where are the other competitors?
By Karen Zhang
Often, I’m greeted endearingly at an American restaurant. The minute I sit down, a middle-aged Caucasian woman comes to me, menu in hand and says, “How’re you today, honey?” The first time I heard it, it caught me off guard. Why would a stranger call me “honey”? My Chinese parents would hardly call me “honey.” The second time I heard it I was still in shock. The third time, the endearment stuck out annoyingly but I began to accept it. The fourth, the fifth and more times onward, I must have grown into the ultra-friendly American culture.
The longer I stay in a restaurant, I realize all customers are called “honey” or “sweetheart.” It really depends on the servers how to differentiate one endearment from another. By the end of the day, I wonder how many sweethearts the waitress will have served.
“How’s everything, sweetheart?” a server comes to me and inquires in the middle of my meal, with a lusciously rising tone on the last word. A flat “fine” is often the most genuine reply I can give. Her passionate diminutive will not cease.
“Do you want more water, sweetie?” she asks, a pitcher of ice water in hand.
“No,” I say plainly, adding “thanks” as a sudden reminder.
After I pay the bill, she probably will throw me one last juicy farewell—“Thank you very much, sweetheart! I hope you have a wooon-derrr-ful day.”
I certainly will—after hearing a sugar-coated voice chanting throughout my meal. Imagine if I were a lonely customer, how much more those endearing words would mean to me. At least, I’m someone’s sweetheart!
But I’ll never have the guts to translate word for word the sweet greetings to my family in China. My dad may find the diminutives offensive, and my cousin will get jealous of the server calling her husband “honey.” Despite Chinese society becoming more westernized, it’s still not easy for many Chinese couples to say “I love you” in public; whereas in America, I’ve heard these three words too many times out of the mouths of strangers. Are Americans too loving, or are Chinese too discreet about sweet talk? Whatever it is, I hope I don’t need to call my server “sweetheart” to get her attention.
By Karen Zhang
Summer has arrived! From Bangor, Maine to Austin, Texas, from Berkley, California to Asheville, North Carolina, outdoor musical scenes spring up everywhere across the country. No kidding. Americans enjoy outdoor activities in summer. Attending live performances in the open air seems to be a favorite American pastime.
I had never been to a live outdoor concert until I got to America. Concerts in China regardless of genres are usually held indoors or in a stadium. When I watched American movies in China, I didn’t understand the joy of swarms of Americans carrying lawn chairs, portable ice-boxes and blankets towards the same direction—a gig. Now I see why after my visits to several musical venues including Saratoga Performing Arts Center in upstate New York, Tanglewood in western Massachusetts, and Wolf Trap in northern Virginia. How convenient it is that a concert is held just around the corner in a neighborhood! (For instance, Wolf Trap is only 15 miles away from my home in Virginia.)
I also notice that the lawn tickets are usually much cheaper than those in house. For thirty bucks on average one can have a gratifying evening—both acoustically and through the taste buds. People usually bring along snacks and beverages, picnicking on the lawn prior to the concert. Or simply, just bring dozens of bottles of beer and binge. That’s the point! I wonder if the music or the drinking brings people together. I have an impression that Americans consume lots of alcohol—youngsters go for beer while the sophisticated for Chardonnay. During the concert, the clinking of bottles occasionally accompanies the live rendition of a masterpiece. Or the booze has taken effect in the wild cheering from the fans.
The outdoor gigs provide the performers and the audience with the most casual platform to appreciate music. Musicians seem to be more improvised and playful in an outdoor setting. The audience of course feels more at home, at least the attire for outdoor concerts is more casual. Can you wear a baseball cap, a home team jersey and sandals to an indoor symphony? Or can you flip your glaring cell phone every twenty minutes during the concert? Or even taking off your shoes and stretch your feet while listening to the music? Apparently, you can have all this freedom if you appreciate a gig on a lawn.
There is no boundary in the music world. The outdoor concerts certainly have spoken for themselves. This is how epidemic music can reach individuals in America. If someday this form of performance is popularized in China, I think it’ll be a relief for tens of thousands of smokers and serious drinkers who love music but feel restricted by the dos and don’ts at an indoor concert.
By Karen Zhang
When I studied in Pittsburgh, I had heard of Hershey Park in eastern Pennsylvania. I had always wondered what a theme park looked like in America. This early summer my dream finally came true. I went with family to Hershey Park—my first theme park experience in America.
We were greeted with a parking lot so gigantic that we had to walk a mile or so to the entrance. That was quite different from the theme parks in China, where visitors can usually get to the door by public transportation. I was disoriented in the parking lot until I got a map at the entrance. From carousel to roller coasters, every game is marked in the map by numbers subject to its risk levels. I was amazed how the architects pack more than 60 rides together with a water world and a zoo in such a confined space. The high roller coaster tracks crisscross the low ones, circling the perimeter of the park. From every corner in the park, you can hear shrilling cries from the cars zipping by on these rides, haunting the farming country nearby.
Hershey is a town of tourism. The local businesses seem to be all related to the chocolate empire—even the street lamps on the Chocolate Avenue are in the shape of Hershey Kisses! I didn’t have the guts to take on the head-spinning-adrenaline-rushing rides, nor did I want to get wet in the pool. Sounds like I’m pretty dull, aren’t I? I thought so and didn’t expect to get much on this trip. But it turns out the trip to Hershey, PA is as much for education as it is for fun. The history of a town is always fascinating. Built on the vision of Milton Hershey, the founder of the Hershey Chocolate Company, that his workers ought to live well in a complete community around his factory site, Hershey Park has been a favorite recreational venue.
American entrepreneurship is much more mature than that of China. Or I should say the legacies of the private enterprises are better kept in America. An old Chinese saying says, it’s easier to start a business than to keep one. In the long river of Chinese history, there were once many domestic entrepreneurs in China at the turn of the 20th century, at the same period of the Second Industrial Revolution in the West. However, their legacies can only be found in historic records in China today. Few of them exist at a physical site like the town of Hershey in modern days. In the backdrop of rapid construction all over China, the historic enterprises will be forgotten, replaced by new models of business.
If it were not because of the preservation and expansion of the Hershey legacy—from the amusement park to the factory, from the museum to the botanical gardens, from the hotel to the boarding school, I wouldn’t have known how Hershey chocolates were manufactured, how Hershey Kisses got their names, how Reese’s peanut butter cups joined the Hershey chocolate family, and how modern people continue the philanthropic mission of the corporation by providing Americans and foreigners like me with education, recreation and tons of fun.
By Karen Zhang
Who doesn’t know bingo? But this word is known to Chinese as an English idiom—an exclamation of sudden realization about something right. Few English learners in China would know bingo was originated from a game of chance.
A few weeks ago I participated in a local bingo game for the first time. It was held in a firehouse canteen that could take up a hundred or so people. There—surrounded by dozens of participants, mostly women—not only did I get a gist of the game, but I had also tried my patience to sit in the intense vibes for a good three hours. Two women in their mid-fifties sitting next to my table were kind enough to give me prompts before every game.
An emcee sat in the center of the room, manipulating a lottery-like machine which picks a ball marked with a number from an air-swirling pool. He then placed the selected ball in front of the camera and announced the number twice. On four sides of the room were electronic boards and TV screens keeping pace with the announcer.
It turns out bingo is more complicated than I thought, simply because there are a number of winning patterns for each game—aside from the traditional patterns that five matched numbers in a row horizontally, vertically or diagonally, some games require a pattern of “No Free Space,” or “Inside Picture Frame,” or “Crazy Kite” and more. The names of the pattern were as bizarre as the patterns to me. I had to refer to a chart for every game. I felt like a first-grader reacquainting with numbers in a five-by-five box. The tension grew after a series of numbers were announced and nobody yelled “bingo!”
Some veteran players bought at least half a dozen cards. They deftly crossed the selected numbers on all of them. Simultaneously, they checked the electronic bingo in front of them. The key to success is the more you bet, the more likely you will win. I might have been the youngest participant but I was far from the most adventurous or the most multi-tasking. Embarrassingly, after half of the game, I had already grown too tired to follow the numbers. A few times I missed the called numbers. No way could I get the hang of it, I said to myself.
At hearing people shouting “bingo” at the top of their lungs, I finally witnessed how the word “bingo” originally, unmistakenly, and musically conveys the very excitement of sudden realization and surprise. Just the sound of it had made me amp up more anticipation for my next game.
By Karen Zhang
These days I have been practicing the known tagline—“More saving, more doing. That’s the power of the Home Depot.” As summer is around the corner, I spend more time outdoors—not working out but gardening. I till, I dig, I shovel, I mow, I plant, I water, I bend down on my knees and stoop a thousand times before I stand and clap off the dirt from my gloved hands. After spending a considerable amount of time outdoors, I wonder if I’ll become an amateur biologist, following Rachel Carson’s footpath.
In the past, I thought the Home Depot was a man’s world while Macy’s department store might be a better venue for women’s shopping sprees. But this spring, my numerous visits to the Home Depot have changed my impression of American life.
Unlike the urban Chinese who would rather hire others to fix their homeowners’ problems, many Americans spend hours in bettering their properties. Gardening is only a small part—and the most visible one—of the changes you can do to improve living. I didn’t realize how rewarding gardening would be for me until I have an American life. (I didn’t have such a luxurious time and space in China where a majority of people worked their butt off all year round just to skimp and save to buy their first apartment.)
It’s the environment that changes my view. I see more grassland and trees in America, not to mention squirrels, rabbits and deer cohabitating with humans. I would not pay as close attention to the plant names as now. Despite the need to reshape the landscape for urbanization, Americans try to preserve nature as intact as possible. No wonder a Chinese friend of mine who came to the U.S. for the first time said to me that most parts of the country look more rural than China. Perhaps because of this sense of protection, Americans begin their reservation from their back yards and front lawns, as well as from their balconies for those who live in condos.
A report done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency shows landscape irrigation nationwide is estimated to account for almost one-third of all residential water use. In drier climates, up to 50% of household water use comes from landscaping. When I first read these figures, I was startled by the fact that how generous Americans were to use water for their gardens instead of for drinking. There’re so many regions in the world today that are still in drought or forced to use contaminated water.
As an old saying goes, “No pains, no gains.” But for beginners, you should be prepared that your pains may not be returned with gains. I’ve experienced it many times. Yet, I’m still enjoying more doing around the house. Gardening makes me wonder now and then—as I look out at the flowers I planted, I can’t believe I am in America.
By Karen Zhang
While flipping channels on TV, I see American pharmaceutical companies put out a barrage of ads for their new drugs. These commercials seem to highly focus on its side effects. (I know the ads are required by law to mention side effects.) The key point is consumers should consult their doctors before using these medications. In comparison, Chinese TV commercials do more bragging on the medicine, whether or not it is effective.
But the number of Americans that rely on daily medicine is striking. More than 50% of insured residents of the United States regularly take prescription drugs for at least one chronic health condition, according to a study conducted by Medco Health Solutions in 2008. In other words, half of the national population is unhealthy.
I’ve never seen so many pharmacies around one neighborhood until I came to America. From Wal-Mart to Target, from Rite Aid to Walgreens, from local supermarkets to online drug suppliers, you can fill your prescription anytime, anywhere. I’m sure the pharmaceutical industry in America is a big piece of cake that lures everyone for a bite.
It’s understandable that chronic patients need to take prescription pills on a daily basis. But a healthy person may also take nutrient supplements. To rephrase my mother’s warning—if you’re not myopic, why bother to wear glasses? If you’re fit as a fiddle, why bother to take pills? But that’s certainly not the American philosophy.
My husband has diabetes and a heart condition. His current daily medicine meal is twelve pills a day. The pills he takes are colorful like a handful of candies. I always wonder if each kind counter-affects the other. As long as his mind stays lucid to keep track of the amount and the color of each drug. Knock on wood! Now when my husband sees his doctors, he has to give out a long list of medications. If only one has a super memory to remember those pharmaceutical names.
I also wonder if taking medicine gives a patient more psychological satisfaction than the medical effect in itself. Psychiatric medicine is often controversial. Can medicines really combat one’s depression and stabilize one’s mind? Or does the action of taking them relieve the patient’s mental condition? And if one accidentally overdoses, tragedy ensues.
Perhaps because of the environment, I also have contracted an unprecedented, come-and-go health problem in America—“sun allergy” as one doctor called it; “skin herpes” another doctor named it. I never had this skin issue in China. Now I take medication if the problem recurs—just as the Americans do.
By Karen Zhang
When I first came to the U.S., I had to be asked the question of “How old are you” for the first time when I checked out at a supermarket. It never occurred to me that I had to bring my ID to a store. I had been in America only about two weeks. I shopped with my American retired professor friend for groceries. He wanted to buy beer for his house guests. His gray hair and fatherly look could no way stir the cashier’s suspicion since you have to be twenty-one to buy beer. But it was me—a twenty-six-year-old Chinese who probably looked sixteen then—who spoiled my friend’s shopping plan.
“Can I see your ID?” a chunky middle-aged cashier asked. She deftly swiped the items on the belt across an infrared monitor.
“I don’t have an ID with me,” I said as if I was accused.
“I have my driver’s license,” my American friend said as he pulled out his ID from the black leather wallet.
“No, I want to see hers,” the cashier insisted. “I know you have no problem in checking out the beer. But I’m not sure about her.” She eyed me firmly.
“I don’t have a driver’s license and I don’t have my passport with me,” I said flatly.
“How old are you?”
“26.” I was shocked by the question. I was told it was impolite to ask a woman’s age. Good manners seemed to be played down this time.
“It’s the company’s policy that we should check young people’s IDs if they check out beer.”
“He bought the beer, not me,” I argued, feeling I had no advantage in this conversation.
“No. Since you and he are in the same party, I’ll still need to check your ID.”
Just when I was about to refute, my friend gave up and said, “All right, take out the beer.”
Thanks to the cashier who stuck to her guns, we didn’t get beer. My friend got it a few days later by himself. I can’t say if that cashier was too rigid or too responsible. I also can’t say if I should feel flattered when my young appearance on a legally-aged body causes an ID check before my drinking. But I now understand why there are many late teens Westerners on a binge in China and why many young Americans would like to party in Canada where the legal drinking age is 18 or 19. Isn’t this an American rendition of a Chinese saying—every policy has a counter-strategy?
By Karen Zhang
I thought it was a unique Chinese way to assemble a homeowners association, especially since disputes between Chinese homeowners and developers have increased exponentially in Chinese cities. I’ve now discovered homeowners associations in America have great supervising power over any individual household.
I realized this after my Virginia home received a notice that was more or less a subpoena to a hearing regarding my family’s supposedly misplacing a trash barrel at the wrong time and at the wrong spot. The notice was enclosed with an eight by five snapshot of the evidence—a trash barrel marked with our house number standing at the corner of a sidewalk, where the curb is painted yellow to alert no parking. At the corner of the picture showed the time—3:52pm, April 26, 2012. The notice declared that each household should place their trash barrel directly in front of their houses either after dark or early the next morning when the trash is picked up.
In China, I would ignore such a notice but my husband told me that if we didn’t attend the hearing we could be fined or face legal action. That sounded threatening. At the hearing, my husband and I faced three members of the homeowners board across a table. I immediately recognized the woman who once gave me verbal warning about the trash. She must be the one who took the evidence photo. Why would the homeowners association make such a sneaky move to snap a photo rather than simply knock on our door to clear any misunderstanding?
It is a big deal to attend a hearing in China. But Americans seem to be born to be litigious. Unofficial statistics show the United States has one lawyer for every 270 Americans, the most in the world. Whereas in the U.K., for instance, each lawyer is for 400 Britons. (The ranking for Chinese lawyers is too far behind to be visible on the list.)
My husband told the board that for fifteen years he had been leaving the trash in front of the house as directed with no trouble. The board barked back that our trash barrel was too close to a “NO PARKING” sign. My husband countered that the trash barrel was never on the yellow “NO PARKING” line and that the sign doesn’t say “NO TRASH.”
So what happened? The board saved its face by fining us $50 and then saved our face saying that if we were good for six months, we would not have to pay the fine. We still put our trash barrel directly in front of our house but further away from the sign and yellow line. What I learned from this hearing is even though I may be a silent lamb in China, I have to be feisty in America. For my own sake, I must use a tit-for-tat strategy. I may not be as noisy as an American but I can be eloquent for my own rights.
by Songyi Zhang
Recently, I have found a new alternative way to get to Washington D.C. without driving. I can take a bus not far from home to the closest metro station, and from there I can reach anywhere in the capital by subway. I am thrilled about my discovery. After all, public transportation is poor where I live. It is unpleasant to get stuck in the heavy traffic on Route 66, which probably is the busiest highway in the United States. Having lived in a big city in China for many years, I am more comfortable with public transportation than driving.
However, disappointingly, the free parking lots in Fairfax County around the metro stations and bus stops are limited. The demand is always higher than supply. On one Wednesday morning at around 8:30, I drove to the bus stop parking lot, which is about one and a half mile away. To my surprise, it was completely full. A couple of cars were like mine, cruising around to look for a slim chance. At that moment, I began to feel I was in a lost competition. I would imagine a commuter must have felt that stress, starting from the beginning of the day. Only the very early bird would be likely to get a parking space. But there is no guarantee. No wonder people start traveling at four a.m. to work so as to beat the traffic, or to get a free parking space.
What I don’t understand is why the department of transportation does not increase parking space and bus schedules to the D.C. metro. There are assigned parking lots that are not fully used because the MetroBus does not stop there frequently. And the parking lot that I wanted to use and that the MetroBus stops frequently can only accommodate 385 free parking spaces. As the Washington D.C. metropolitan population is growing, bettering the public transportation service is the best solution to relieve the traffic in this region.
On my latest trip to Guangzhou, China, my hometown city, I found there are ten metro lines as opposed to three lines three years ago. As a result, there are more bus routes that connect the metro stations. Public transportation is essential to city dwellers. But in America, people rely too much on cars. Before I came to America, I heard so much praise about carpooling. I thought America was a carpooling society. But to see is to believe. Based on my observation, eight out of ten commuters in northern Virginia that go to work by car ride alone. I am afraid the traffic in this region is in a poor cycle—deficient parking spaces that connect public transportation leads to the increase of vehicles on the road. As a result, the traffic will be paralyzed.
by Songyi Zhang
A few years ago, an American friend told me she had her eye surgery in Thailand. I asked her why she chose Thailand. She said the medical technology was sufficient and the cost was reasonable. She spent a couple hundred US dollars on her eyesight correction. It would definitely cost more in the U.S.. Now she does not need to wear glasses.
When I was in China, I also heard news about young Chinese women traveling to Korea to undergo plastic surgery. It is such a trend that there are travel agencies that organize tour groups to Korea for the same purpose—experiencing Korea’s thriving beauty industry. Paying less than 600 U.S. dollars for a four-day tour, tourists not only sightsee some major attractions but also try the skincare treatments and even sign up for plastic surgery. Of course, a stop to shop for the cosmetic products is a must.
Back in the U.S., complaints about high medical cost have increased in recent years. As more people are unemployed, more people can’t afford medical expenses. I remember before I came to America to study, the university required every student to have medical insurance, whether or not the insurance was bundled with a family plan or was independent. I was quite unwilling to pay for that since I was an international student and my tuition was already twice that of in-state students. But all I heard was that without medical insurance, you’ll spend way more on medical care in America. So I have medical insurance. Even after my graduation, I have to continue to pay my full insurance as a self-employed resident.
If the high cost of medical care in America intimidates people to see doctors and encourages more Americans to seek cheaper treatments overseas, why can’t the government, the insurance companies and the medical providers compromise on an affordable and feasible alternative. (I know. The problem is more complicated than that.)
Before I came to America, I used to hear about all kinds of kudos from returned Chinese immigrants bragging about how good the medical care in America. After I got to this country, I guess I have heard the other side of the story—not terribly appealing.
Medical tourists should understand they are also facing another kind of risk when they receive medical treatments abroad. Take plastic surgery as an example, if a foreign patient is dissatisfied after the surgery or the surgery turns out to be a failure, disputes could happen. We all know different countries have different laws. Not to mention the language differences. Can the medical tourist get her money back without aches and pains? I doubt it.
by Songyi Zhang
Geek squad—what a funny name! When I first encountered the name three years ago, I thought to myself who were these geeks driving a black-and-white Volkswagen Bug on the street. I was attracted by the cute car as much as the name.
When it comes to repairing computers, America is nowhere as convenient as in China. It is difficult for me to find credible independent repairman in America. Basically, if you want good service, you have to go to a big electronic merchant like Best Buy. I know the American labor is ten times more expensive than Chinese labor. But to keep my peace of mind I have to turn to Best Buy to solve the recent breakdown of my laptop. There I had my first experience with Geek Squad service.
It took me a week—longer than what Geek Squad had promised—to get my laptop fixed. Just tracking the status of the repair was a nuisance. I could not get the updates on the Internet. Nor could I talk to a representative on the phone regarding the problem. Eventually I had to visit the store for a face-to-face inquiry. That seemed to be the most effective means. I learned that my laptop was fixed the day before and nobody bothered to notify me. Great!
I thought that would be the end of my association with Geek Squad. But not yet. A few days ago my laptop had some glitches. I remembered I had signed up the Geek Squad protection plan which allowed me to resort to them online. So I gave it a try and connected with a technician named Russell K.. We exchanged instant messages through a conversation box on the screen. Then Russell began to remotely control my laptop. I had no idea how he did it but I could see the cursor was moving on the desktop, as if it was commanded by an invisible man. The whole process fascinated me.
In half an hour, my laptop was in good shape again. My online experience with Geek Squad was utterly different from my previous time in the store. It was more efficient and effective than expected. Is this how Best Buy tries to attract the customers by providing good online service? The company is under some stress in recent years. The prospective customers would rather scan the store prices on their smartphones and iPhones. They eventually purchase the same item online at a cheaper price.
New technology changes traditional shopping methods, as it has changed traditional customer service.
by Songyi Zhang
Today, when you are about to board an American airliner, it may not be news to you that you have to prepare for two possibilities: one, the overhead bin above your seat is full and you have to stow your carry-on bag elsewhere. (Good luck if you can find room on the plane.) Two, the overhead bin is too small to fit your presumably within-the-size-limit carry-on luggage. You have tried many ways—horizontally, vertically, on the side, upside down, punching and squooshing—and even a flight attendant comes to assist you, but in vain. Your bag does not budge.
On my recent trip to and from China, I experienced and witnessed the same quandaries on a United flight. Since I am not disabled or a mother with babies, I have no advantage to board early. In fact, I boarded pretty late for my herd-class seat.
Compared to the Asian airliners, the overhead bins on the American planes are relatively higher. Perhaps the North Americans are really taller. So I can barely reach the latch on the overhead bin, let alone lifting up my 30-pound backpack. One time, I had to excuse myself for taking off my shoes and standing on the aisle seat. I then awkwardly lifted my backpack and pushed it into the overhead bin. But the other time I did not have such luck. Not only was my overhead bin partly full but my backpack had an awkward shape—bulky at the bottom and light at the top. Thank goodness a tall male passenger seating across from my seat offered me a helping hand. We saw a possible space in the compartment above him. So he delicately tucked my backpack from top to bottom and it worked. I was so thankful that I almost wanted to give him a big hug for my gratitude. But I noticed a long line of passengers waiting in the aisle. After I was seated, I saw a few more passengers having trouble stowing their carry-on bags. Sometimes it was not because a passenger had an oversized carry-on bag. It was because an early-bird passenger who had scattered all his belongings in the overhead bin. The compartment was far from fully used. That can really drive me mad. But you can’t do much about it except looking for new empty space for your carry-on luggage.
All in all, I think the frustration of traveling by air in America appears greater than that in China. I can check at least two pieces of luggage free on a Chinese airline. But the U.S. airlines charge for checked bags. The Chinese airlines themselves encourage passengers to check bags for safety concerns. But American airlines seem to have gone a bit far to make profits.
Before I might become a victim of a fallen piece of oversized carry-on luggage over my head, and before I waste so much time and energy on figuring out how to economically pack my suitcase so that to avoid paying extra baggage fees, it may be better-off for me to choose a non-American airline to travel next time.