Greeting Cards

By Karen Zhang

I remember how difficult it was in China to find a greeting card for my friends. There were holiday cards for the Chinese New Year and for occasions like weddings and birthdays in stationery shops, but no card to send to a friend just to say hi.

On the other hand, I’m thrilled and stunned by shelves of greeting cards on display in Americn shops. There are not only cards for weddings and birthdays but also for sympathy, for graduation, for job promotions, and for just saying “I like you.” Just in the category of birthdays, there are cards for grandparents, grandsons, granddaughters, husbands, wives, brothers, and sisters. There are serious ones and humorous ones, sad ones and happy ones. You name it, and there’s a card for it.

Perhaps because of the wide selection of greeting cards, Americans purchase approximately 6.5 billion greeting cards each year. It’s a substantial figure, about five times the population of China.

But Chinese people don’t send many greeting cards. In China I received greeting cards only from my American friends. I was always surprised that they were able to find the right card for the right occasion—birthday, Christmas, congratulations, thank-you, Halloween, get-well. The cards always seemed exactly right.

Americans are familiar with Hallmark and American Greetings as they are two of the largest publishers of greeting cards in the world. Thanks to the Internet, today more people use electronic greeting cards than the paper ones. I still prefer writing a paper card and sending it — it seems more intimate than an electronic one.

Today an American family can customize their own greeting cards with family photos and original art. But in China this is still an expensive production and is rarely done. Perhaps this is a business opportunity for the right entrepreneur.
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Food Safety

By Karen Zhang

Recently, a giant Chinese meat company, Shuanghui International, has bought the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, at the price of US $4.7 billion. The news immediately went viral on the internet in China probably because the Chinese people are very concerned about food safety.

The food safety scandal in China has been going on for years, from tainted baby formula to diseased pork, from polluted vegetables to heavy-metal rice. In fact, as the pace of the country’s economic growth gets faster, more food safety problems surface. Nearly every type of food you can think of has been a subject of scandal. Chinese people are living in fear. No one knows what food will be next.

Now the merger has aroused the suspicion of the Chinese public about whether Shuanghui International is trying to boost its meat quality by bringing in a foreign partner. After all, being cheated multiple times, Chinese consumers have lost faith in domestic food products. Imported food suddenly is what people are avidly after. The Hong Kong government has had to limit quantities of imported baby formula sales to mainland visitors in order to ensure the supply of the city. Perhaps you have figured out why Chinese tourists in America are so generous with their money on foreign brands. Quality is the key — although vanity is part of it as well!

It’s a shame that Chinese food manufacturers cheat consumers and the government is ineffectual in inspecting the supplies. In this respect, China is far behind the U.S. Many Americans think that China will soon surpass America, but actually China is still very backward.

As more Chinese people become middle-class, they’re consuming more meat. The country has been a net importer of pork since 2008. As urbanization develops rapidly in China, more people will adopt a meat-heavy diet. Thanks to globalization and the expansion of fast food chains and a high-calorie diet, in no time, Chinese kids will look no different than overweight children in the West. The merger of two large meat companies may be good news for the meat-loving Chinese who want the supply of quality pork to keep coming!

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Bonsai Garden

By Karen Zhang

On a recent weekend I visited the national arboretum in Washington and marveled at the exquisite bonsai trees on display. The Bonsai Garden inside the arboretum—a huge botanical garden containing a variety of woody plants intended partly for scientific study—is divided into three parts: the Chinese pavilion, the Japanese pavilion and the North American pavilion.

Greeting by a zigzagging stone path lined by Asian plants, such as needle pine, willows and bamboos, I entered the Bonsai Garden with continuous wows. I couldn’t believe that in North America I could find something resembling the essence of a Chinese classical garden. The swallow-tailed roof, stone wall, red-wood furniture, reflection pond and above all, the miniature trees in pots, some of them aged a hundred years old.

Bonsai, literally meaning plantings in a pot, is considered a refined garden art in China. Traditionally, one would find Chinese scholars’ homes with bonsais for interior and exterior decoration — a symbol of elite status. Wandering around the Chinese pavilion made me feel as if were in Suzhou, an eastern Chinese city renowned for its classical gardens. There were illustrations on display telling visitors how Bonsai was made by the delicate hands of masters. But after seeing that, you may want to think twice about “torturing” a plant to satisfy your perfection toward beauty. For a modern sensibility, there are too many manipultaitons– wiring, twisting and replanting — for us to feel the the beauty of the bonsais is worth it.

The North American pavilion exhibits a number of bonsai done by American masters, some of whom are Chinese by ethnicity. The trees are slightly bigger and their style is wilder. I guess that gives credit to the American no-strings-attached free spirit. American masters prefer to use bulky tree trunks like bald cypress and juniper. One bonsai was so upright that it reminded me of a strong silver sword piercing the sky.

I saw in the arboretum brochures a few names of Westerners who were introduced as the Bonsai Garden keepers. Some of the bonsai trees in the North American pavilion were created by them. I understand this is how Americans present what they learn about the traditional Asian culture, and how they incorporate the Chinese bonsai planting skills with American aesthetics. As a Chinese, I think it’s great to see East Asian culture presented so beautifully in America.

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Stolen Eggplant

By Karen Zhang

I cannot think of another better title for this piece than “Stolen Eggplant” to express my anger and regret. This summer I planted a box of Japanese eggplants. Just as they were bearing fruits and I was receiving praises from a neighbor, one of the biggest eggplants was gone overnight!

The day before I had checked on my eggplants and planned to harvest the biggest one the following day. But what awaited me was the empty branch with a cleverly-hidden cut. I assumed a greedy neighbor must have her eyes on that very eggplant for a long time and when it was time to take action, she was also well-prepared to not arouse my notice

Although I have received comforting words from my friends and family over this small loss, I still cannot understand why this misfortune has happened to me. Or I should say, neighbor-theft happens in America with no exception.

Before I came to America, I kept hearing about the safe and quiet neighborhoods in this country. Granted, before my eggplant was stolen, I did believe American neighborhoods were safe and even soul-less—as American people rarely roam around on the streets but drive mostly. An American friend of mine told me he had kept his house door unlocked for years, uneventful still. A biker could leave his bike on the lawn, untouched. A letter got misdelivered and the neighbor returned it to the right address honestly..

Now my eggplant is gone and my faith for a safe and quiet neighborhood has changed. I have to be vigilant. As a saying goes, once bitten twice shy. I have moved my eggplants to the fenced back yard from the open air in the front of the house. However, critters like chipmunks and squirrels are easily lured by the big fruits. I’d rather feed the critters with the fruit of my hard work than encourage a neighbor to get something for nothing.

Alas, when it comes to growing vegetables in America, you cannot always win but must get ready to fight against weather, invaders and many other unexpected threats.

Who says American life is easy as a pie?

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Greek Yogurt

By Karen Zhang

These days I have a penchant for Greek yogurt. Claimed to be one of the healthiest food products with low fat and high protein, Greek yogurt is not only my favorite but an increasing number of Americans’ favorite. One statistic shows a total of 35% of all yogurt Americans buy today is Greek, up from only 1% six years ago.

Indeed, when I shopped at a local supermarket and glimpsed the dairy section, I saw various brands of Greek yogurt taking up three quarters of the shelf. So why Greek yogurt? What is its attraction?

If you look closely, the price of Greek yogurt is slightly higher than regular yogurt. Perhaps from the manufacturer’s point of view, Greek yogurt is a money-making engine. So no matter if a dairy company with big name or small, it sells Greek yogurt in its own definition. Some brands taste less dry than others. Some looked more yellowish.

When I first tried Greek yogurt, I loved the blueberries, but I hated the plain. I wondered how yogurt lovers could swallow such an insipid thick lump as if gulping a ball of white socks.

It’s all about health and beauty. If you take heed to the taglines of Greek yogurt commercials in America, you will notice they all boast the dairy product is a good low-calorie substitute for sour cream or it can be a light lunch.

Different from yogurt sold in the Chinese market, Greek yogurt is far thicker in texture. While Americans use a spoon to scoop the yogurt like ice cream, Chinese “drink” yogurt directly from a milk bottle or with a straw from a carton box. Since these days Chinese people’s diet is getting more Westernized by consuming more meat and red wine, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Greek yogurt being a hit in China soon. After all, Chinese people are starting to look more like Americans, so we’ll soon have to start dieting. Greek yogurt, here I come!

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American Films

By Karen Zhang

I must confess I am a movie buff through and through. Since I came to America, the only entertainment I cannot live without is movies, either at home or at theaters. Now I understand why years ago some Americans in China told me what they missed most from their home country was watching movies.

On average, American theaters play at least two new movies weekly, often shown on Friday at theaters. I see why the first-weekend box office is a weather vane of a movie’s popularity. One of the best things about watching movies in America is the overall price of movie tickets, which is more reasonable than that in China, where a movie ticket can easily cost the equivalent of over US $15.

Hollywood movies are always well-received in China, especially among young people. Since the American domestic box-office revenues are shrinking, thanks to the online media and the option of watching movies on various electronic devices, more and more film producers place their hope in the overseas markets, including China. In the meantime, the growing number of Chinese middle class needs to be entertained. China has now overtaken Japan as the world’s second-largest movie market.

I used to go to theaters in China, but of course not as often as I do now. Besides the fact that the movie tickets are expensive, new films don’t come out as quickly and frequently. However, the pirate market is a different story. Occasionally, pirate DVDs are available before the film is released in China.

Facing a similar fate to news media, imported movies in China have to get approval from censors before showing at the Chinese theaters. To protect Chinese films’ market share, Chinese authorities allow only 34 foreign films to be released in the country each year. But that amount is still larger than the number of imported movies from China released in the States.

Standing between two cultures, I wish Americans were able to watch more Chinese movies. Perhaps more cultural exchange would help reduce misunderstandings between the two nations.


 

Meeting the First Dog and Other Adventures in the White House

By Karen Zhang

After a couple of hours waiting for a free ticket, I finally had a closer look at the White House. Along with the Statue of Liberty and the Golden Gate Bridge, the White House is one of the few American icons that Chinese people recognize, so I was excited to see it.

The garden of the White House is open to the public twice a year—once in spring, the other in the fall. Together with thousands of enthusiastic visitors coming for the spring garden tour at the White House, I was fortunate to queue in the early group and got the advantage to take photos with a smaller crowd. Because I was early enough to visit the president’s house, I even saw the famous “First Dog” Bo which is a furry black Portuguese Water Dog with white paws and chest. Bo was probably finishing his first romp and poop of the day. As soon as his handler saw more people walking in, he led the dog away from the lawn and soon disappeared out of sight. Anyway, this was the highlight of the tour—neither the blooming tulips nor the renowned cherry blossoms matched the morning greeting with the First Dog.

Normally, visitors can see the White House only through the iron fence surrounding the property. It’s nearly impossible for a visitor to take a snapshot of the White House except through the branches of the old trees or the fences. But on the day of the spring garden tour, I took as many photos of the White House as I could without obstruction, including photos of the Washington Monument beyond the south lawn. At zero distance, the White House didn’t look as stately as what it is shown on TV. It was like a snow-white club house with a friendly staff to guide visitors and answer their questions.

In China, you would never be allowed to visit the Chinese leaders’ offices—the notoriously secret Zhongnanhai in central Beijing – much less their homes. For the American public, everyone is informed about the everyday life of the president, from his basketball practice to his press conferences in the rose garden. With the convenience of social media, President Obama’s amiable images with the family and even with First Dog Bo can go viral instantly; whereas in China, the scandals of top officials only stimulate ordinary people’s imagination, simply because no one really knows what the Chinese leaders do after their public appearances. No way will the doors of Zhongnaihai be as welcomingly open to the public as that of the White House.

This is an amazing country.

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Retirement Planning

By Karen Zhang

Having newly stepped into the American labor force, I’ve had to navigate the byzantine process of planning for retirement. Unlike in China where municipal governments control retirement funds, Americans rely on the financial markets to invest their retirement money.

Instead of letting your money accumulate over a period of time, the American investment companies put your money in the stock and bond markets and let the money grow until you retire.

Of course, same as the Chinese employers, the American employers will also contribute a matching portion to the employee’s retirement fund. But neither the Chinese employers nor the employee has direct control of the retirement fund. The municipal government does.

To decide which retirement plan to invest is fairly tough for me. I am a complete investment dummy. My philosophy never moves beyond one plus one equals two. That is, if I save one dollar every day, by the end of the week I will have seven dollars. But the American way is I should take some risks and I will probably get more than seven dollars by the end of the week. But how? There are a million probabilities and options there for me to choose. Ah—back to the unique character of American life—making choices.

For days, I was overwhelmed with financial jargon from the retirement plan literature. How will I distinguish Risk A from Risk B? How will I foresee I will gain instead of lose my retirement fund thirty years from now? The instruction says a conservative option is to join in the formulated 5-year increment lifecycle investment. I say, even this investment is too risky for me. Why can’t I just put aside the money without investing it for the future? Yes I can if this is my option. But my employer will not contribute their part if the retirement fund is not placed in the investment market. I guess I just cannot have a simple retirement in America, can I?

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American Caricature

By Karen Zhang

I like reading caricatures. The exaggeration of a celebrity in a drawing makes the hidden satire much more lively and unforgettable. I appreciate the artwork as much as the message conveyed through the image. I once subscribed to the New Yorker magazine. In the end, I was more interested in the humor and cartoon section in the magazine than the long-winded articles. Perhaps, drawing is like music. Both can reach a wide audience without geographic and cultural boundaries.
I notice that the American president is the most publicized caricature in the American media. For example, when President Bush junior was in office, his caricature with his distinctive monkey-like face was everywhere in the political humor. Now it is President Obama’s turn. His big ears, long face and his signature cheek-to-cheek smile appear in nearly all sorts of newspapers and magazines. During the last election year, Obama’s caricature had a new companion, or I shall say a new rival. The American media was also thick with Mitt Romney’s caricature with his overly-groomed hair and protruding chin.

Leaders in China are not made fun of. For centuries, Chinese people have regarded their emperors as deity. Those who disrespect the leader of the country were as sinful as a Christian insulting his God. Even in modern days, despite that freedom of speech in China is relatively open, the Chinese media is still careful about criticizing, say, President Xi Jinping’s policies in the form of caricature.

As a Chinese, I find Americans are really bold in expressing their mind, regardless of right or wrong. I saw a caricature of Hillary Clinton portrayed as an evil woman at the Benghazi hearings. I saw the caricature of Speaker of the House John Boehner pounding the gavel with crocodile’s tears. It was so much fun to read and re-read these caricatures. They mark a period of history. After all, American celebrities are quite expressive and dramatic.

I don’t know if there is a limit for caricaturists in America. Are there any rules of what they can draw and what they cann’t? Is their satire subject to liable? Will the caricaturists receive warnings from the authorities if their work offends a particular interest group? Chinese officials hunt down the people who slander them or make them look ridiculous.

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Migrant Workers

By Karen Zhang

Immigration has always been a national issue in the United States. Recently, this issue returns to the spotlight among the American lawmakers. Immigration reform will definitely affect millions of illegal immigrants in America. However, many of them have contributed a great deal of this country’s labor force, especially in areas that are dangerous, dirty, or low paid.

Every morning before daybreak, I come across a number of Spanish-speaking road construction workers on the streets of Washington DC. While they have finished their work, I’m just beginning mine. Carrying ice coolers on their shoulders, they shuffle their leaden feet after a night’s hard work in the open air. Rain or shine, cold or hot, they wear the same glowing yellow uniform vest, white helmet with worn marks and heavy leather boots. Their work clothes are often muddy and somewhat stinky as they pass by me quickly, but they seem cheerful.

Whenever I see these workers, I think of the ones in China. Lots of city dwellers complain about the grim state of being unemployed. Yet, the jobs that require long working hours in harsh conditions are often taken by migrant workers—those who come from poor rural areas. I remember when I mentioned the term “migrant worker” in my writing during my studies in America, my mentor pointed out that in this country the term connoted the immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere who picked up dirty jobs. Well, in my country “migrant workers” means the poor people who travel hundreds of miles from home just to eke out a living.

I read that strawberry farms in California face shutdowns. Not because the farms don’t do well—their strawberries are juicy red and large, waiting to be harvested — but because the farms face shortages of temporary workers who mainly come from across the border. When hearing this news, I was a bit shocked. One of the farm owners said in a TV interview that the public thinks local Americans would fill the vacancies but in fact few Americans are willing to do the hot difficult labor. The same situation happens in public restroom cleaning, mining, landscaping piece work and many other low-paid, no-benefit occupations.

To live in this country, I need to learn basic Spanish in case I have to communicate with a plumber who doesn’t speak English well, or a fishmonger who knows little conversational English. I sincerely hope whether legal or illegal immigrants, they will find their place at home in this country of freedom and tolerance.

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Labor Unions in U.S. and China

By Karen Zhang

My first understanding of a union strike in the United States came last year when I flipped on the TV station and saw dozens of public school teachers in Chicago picketing their school.

Later, a hundred or so Walmart employees went on strike outside Washington, DC, dodging cars and shopping trolleys until they stood face-to-face with a shop manager. Just about the same time, workers of the 85-year-old Hostess Brands, the bankrupt maker of Twinkies snack cakes, also launched a strike against salary and benefit cuts.

Recently, confrontations between workers and employers appear to be sharper and more frequent in China as well. But independent labor unions are almost non-existent in China. The Chinese so-called national trade union is state-controlled. The Chinese government doesn’t allow unions with full legal independence from the national trade union. Worker strikes are illegal.

In America, labor unions play an important role in protecting employees’ labor rights. Take the teachers union in Chicago, for example. When the strike happened, even the mayor couldn’t utilize his power to stop the protest. He could appeal in public to end the strike but not to suppress by force, as the Chinese authorities would have done. Sadly, the Chinese government can command the police force anytime to prevent any form of worker strikes from happening.

I have been told teachers unions across America bear significant responsibility. Most public school teachers are associated with the teacher union. Perhaps it is one of the few strong unions in the country. According to a news report, as the American economy has shifted from heavy industry to services which are more mobile, union membership has fallen, from 24% of private-sector workers in 1973 to a mere 7% in 2011. Yet the unions still have considerable power among government workers.The politicians who negotiate wage deals with public-sector unions are often funded by the same unions. This partly explains why America’s municipal finances are a mess.

It has been a long-standing practice for Walmart to discourage its workers from unionizing. However, the mega-retailer has made an exception to allow employee unions in China. As I said earlier, all labor unions are associated with the national trade union, which is state-controlled. It is obvious that Walmart’s acceptance of government-sponsored unions is to maintain a good relation with the Chinese government. After all, who wants to miss a lion’s share in an economic power house, which has become the world’s second-biggest economy, overtaking Japan and following the US?
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Smoking

By Karen Zhang

When I first arrived in America, I noticed a lot of teenagers smoking. On campus I was shocked to see girls in their late teens and early twenties smoking outside the buildings. Rain or shine or even snow, these smokers were adamant about their addictive love for cigarettes.

In China, a majority of smokers are men. Women smokers are always considered to be morally tarnished. While the ban on smoking inside buildings in America seems to do little to discourage the habit, in China, the situation is even worse. Smokers drag their cigarettes stealthily indoors regardless of the “No Smoking” sign hung on the wall inside the buildings.

In this regard, American smokers are more obedient as they walk out of the buildings to smoke. As for how obedient, let me tell you the news from Virginia where I live. Because Virginia’s tobacco tax is the second-lowest in America, smugglers buy cigarettes there in bulk and sell them to retailers at enormous profit in New York and other high-tax states.

I hadn’t thought that the difference in tobacco taxes between states would promote smuggling domestically, but evidently it does. When I was studying in Pennsylvania, my smoker classmates were aware of an increase of cigarette prices. But they didn’t quit the habit. I thought they probably purchased cigarettes out of state just as some Pennsylvanians go elsewhere to buy liquor. Aren’t the tobacco retailers doing the same thing?

What challenges the authorities to capture the smugglers is how cannily they evade the law. Virginia has recently declared it illegal to buy and possess, with intent to sell elsewhere, more than 5,000 cigarettes. Smugglers often break the big quantity of shipment into a small number of cartons.

Black-market cigarettes are not new in my home city Guangzhou where imported cigarettes are smuggled mainly from Hong Kong and Macau. Their prices are usually cheaper than the market price. But the black-market cigarettes in America are sold at the local market price. Unless there is some kind of technology embedded in the black-market cigarettes that differ from the legal cigarettes, cracking down the tobacco smuggling will be a long battle. No wonder the news report says, when gun-running was at its peak, I-95 was known as the “iron highway”. Now it is the new Tobacco Road.

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Small Print

By Karen Zhang

The other day when I dropped by a local CVS store for errands, I thought I could get my shopping done in minutes. No chance. It wasn’t that my list too long but I had to wait for the cashier to print out a longgggggg receipt—so much longer than my arm. How long is it exactly? Three feet. (I measured it with my metric/imperial system conversion ruler.)

Why on earth does a merchant give out customers long receipts? Does he think we will really read every word on that lengthy slip of paper? I like keeping receipts for the record. But I also notice the pile of receipts gets higher and higher despite the fact that I rarely shop. Perhaps this is an American custom that nobody should get away from the bombardment of advertisement and legal protection.

I did spend some time reading some of the recent receipts. From Home Depot to Macy’s, from CVS to Wal-Mart, nearly every receipt—some are front and back—includes retailers’ return policies, promotion coupons and limitation on these benefits. Of course, as a consumer, all I’m concerned about is how much I’ve spent on this transaction; when, where and what I purchased. This is the basic information on a receipt. In China, all this information can be summed up in a palm-size receipt or even smaller.

Ah, I see. Perhaps the American retailers want to make it easy for the customers not to lose their receipts. I often misplaced the tiny receipts in China. But now, since the overall receipts in America are longer than the grotesque tongue popping out from a jack-in-a-box toy. I have to roll each one of them like a wad of money. (I wish.) Plus, the coupons attached to the receipt may be of use someday. How should I mind carrying it around in a secure place on me?

The legal statement that comes with the receipts is written by attorneys, of course. But how many ordinary people understand the complicated legal terms? With the tiny print and weird font, the message is incomprehensible, but I’m afraid not to get the receipt — there may be something I need on it.

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Capital Metro

By Karen Zhang

I am a commuter to the national capital of the United States. I don’t know if I should feel good or bad about this. In China, if you get a job opportunity in Beijing, many people will look up to you. After all, it’s an international metropolis where a good living is guaranteed.

I remember when I visited Washington D.C. as a tourist for the first time, I was shocked to see how old and run-down the metro facility was, compared to the bright, stable and fast trains in my hometown Guangzhou, China. I even said to myself that thank goodness I wasn’t depending on the metro. I’m sorry to say that to many international visitors, the D.C. metro is known for its dark platforms and poor signs. Only until you are a commuter, and have ridden the train a hundred times, can you take it easy without constantly peeking through the window for station signs.

The interior condition of a train is no better. The announcement system is poor throughout the train, although occasionally you find a good one in some cars. You need to try your luck to hop on a car with bright light and ventilated air. Hopefully you’ll find a seat to secure yourself. A bumpy ride is too common to mention. As the day goes stale, you’ll find more used newspaper scattered on the floor or on the seats. Feel free to pick a copy to kill time as the trip may take longer than expected. Technical problems seem to have badgered the entire metro service for too long, from the railroad to the escalators inside the stations, you name it.

One time when I was on my way to work by subway, a nonstop mechanic sound squeaked in my car as if cages of birds chirped in agony. Another time I smelt burning rubber under the arriving car. My colleague told me her worst experience was when she was on a very jerky train, she felt so sick that she had to get off the train at midway to vomit.

Recently, D.C. unveiled a new design for its subway trains. Ta-da! The sleek 7000-series trains look attractive from the picture in the paper. It says the new model will be the biggest change to the old cars since the system opened in the late 1970s. As the nation’s second-busiest subway system, Washington D.C. looks forward to this brand new day. The first of the more than 350 new cars are expected to go into service in 2014. I really can’t wait.
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Boneless

By Karen Zhang

Lately when I chew on fish and chicken, I suddenly realize neither of them have bones. Yes, it’s a good reminder that I am in America, where bones are disliked. I’m afraid someday in the near future I will take boneless meat for granted. And I won’t enjoy authentic Chinese dishes as much as I should.

We Cantonese have an innate palate for bones. The boneless fish and chicken I have here in America would be considered tasteless in my hometown. The well-known dimsum dish—chicken feet—is a good example of delicacy. Not to mention pork ribs, fish heads, whole fish with heads and tails, even shrimps should come with heads. These peculiar choices of food are only available in Chinese or oriental supermarkets in America. But in my gastronomical hometown—Guangzhou, you will find it ten times more difficult to get fish fillet and boneless chicken.

I certainly don’t want to be regarded as a bone-gnawing monster. My parents used to say that the essence of eating is chewing bones because they consist of high nutrition. They are right. I find after eating boneless fish, the taste doesn’t stay. It’s like a new dish you learn to make yourself is always more delicious than if it is prepared by someone else. Without the challenge of fish bones, I find the process of eating meat comes too easy.

When it comes to food, I have no idea why Americans like boneless everything. However, this preference doesn’t apply to the women’s fashion world. It has been a long tradition in America, as well as China, that women models tend to be ultra-thin. Their bony figure adds to their likelihood of getting success. As a result, teenage models often have eating disorders. Keeping up with the size zero isn’t easy, and of course unhealthy.

In a recent spring issue, Vogue magazine finally took the health issue into account. Including the Chinese edition, all the five regional editions of the fashion glossies all follow the company’s new guidelines—too young and too thin is no longer in. Specifically, models under the age of 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder can’t work with this world’s top arbiter of style.

I have always thought Chinese women are too self-conscious about their figures. When I was in China, my girlfriends often complained to me they disliked their overweight arms or legs or face or belly. Under their influence, I may have complained too much about my body. When I got to America, I found people not only have different skin colors but also various sizes. The so-called obese women wear tight blouses and mini-skirts with pride. Shouldn’t my whiny Chinese girlfriends learn from these proud American women?

Now I understand why my husband said to me when we were in China, “Wait until you see the women in America — you aren’t fat at all.” I now know that it’s not important how others look at you but how you feel about yourself.
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Top Secrets

By Karen Zhang

On the day when the US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden announced to the world how the US has been spying on its competitors as well as its allies through traditional and modern technology, everyone – the media pundits in this country as well as diplomats from other countries — acted astounded and perhaps enraged.

The US government is reportedly sweeping up Internet data and millions of Americans’ phone records in its search for foreign terrorists. In addition, according to Snowden, the NSA has been hacking China for some years, including targets in both Hong Kong and mainland China.

Although as I write this, Snowden is still at large, discussion about the cyber-attacks between the US and China continues. If you click on the Chinese online forums, you will find Snowden has more supporters than enemies in China. Chinese people praise Snowden’s courage and honesty.

Imagine if there were a Chinese Snowden confessing the ruling party’s top secrets to the world, do you think he would still be alive? I bet the Chinese government will hunt him down as hard as the US searched for bin Laden.

Despite the harm that Snowden may have caused to the US national defense, Americans seem to have different opinions about their personal information being collected by the federal government. If you ask any American whether she thinks its accectable for her government to spy on her, unless she is a desperately-show-off person like a reality show star, most of them would say no.

Yet, the popularity of the social media such as Facebook and Twitter tells me that Americans are careless – and scareless — about protecting their own personal information. Are they aware that the pictures they posted online or the personal information they left on a webpage may someday be misused? Given the fact that Americans are so sharing, it does not make it hard for NSA to spy on any individual. Just a simple click on Google, you may find some surprises about yourself.

The Snowden affair has rippled through the governments of a number of big nations. One diplomat said that there are no eternal friends and no perpetual enemies, but permanent interests in international relations. I don’t think the US government will stop the spying despite the protests from the European Union. I do hope China and the US will become, even only temporarily, friends rather than foes. Since the secrets of both countries have leaked, thanks to Snowden, let the two nations work together for everyone’s best interests.

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Suzhi

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?
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Speedy Care

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.

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Fanglu

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.

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Eye Surgery

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.

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Hurricane Sandy

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.

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Potato Chips

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.
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USPS

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?  

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Public Library

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.

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Lengthy Waits

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.
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Smart Touch

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.
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Nobel Prize

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.

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Big Bird

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?

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Bonjour, Montreal

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.

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The New Normal

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.

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