Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Best Chinese Dictionary These Days

Before we left my daughter in China, I wanted to be sure she had a great Chinese-English dictionary.  I remembered a small red and blue dictionary that had been like a Bible to me.  So one day, we spent all morning at the foreign-language bookstore in Hangzhou.  They had rows and rows of dictionaries, although most of them were (naturally) intended for Chinese students of English.
We stood there for at least an hour, comparing the size, weight, translations of each book.  We left with two small books: one which translated English to Chinese in roman characters and one which translated Chinese characters to English.
When we arrived back at my brother-in-law's apartment, my son was awake and asked where we had gone.  We showed him our treasures.  He picked up his ipod, flipped on the dictionary (which not only reads characters but speaks them) and said,  Why didn't you just purchase the app?"

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Chinglish by David Henry Hwang at the Berkeley Repertory Theater is the story of a failed businessman who goes to China for one last shot at making it big.  The protagonist owns a sign store from Ohio and thinks he can help the Chinese avoid such gaffes as having a handicapped bathroom read 'deformed man's toilet.'  He runs up against family connections, the inability for people to just say 'no,' the helpful foreigner who has lived there forever.  And communication issues.
I laughed more than I can remember.
Yet, at the end of it, I came away pondering the more serious themes that Hwang touches on--corruption (on both sides of the Pacific), the importance of understanding culture as well as language, the meaning of 'home.'  It's a wonderful play, showing in Berkeley now through October 7th before packing up to make its debut in Hong Kong in March 2013.

Speaking of funny translations, what's the funniest one you've ever seen?

Friday, August 24, 2012

The China of old....

I met a dear old friend the other day who mentioned she had first gone to China in 1982.  That was centuries ago, when only a few cities were open to foreign travel, when one needed a permit to go from place to place, when the country actually had a special foreign currency (different from the yuan.)  My friend said she missed the days of old when everyone rode their bicycles.  I said, 'They still do."
In fact, according to a recent NPR program, a lot are still riding least compared to the US.  Apparently out of every 1000 cars, 800 are driven by Americans,  75 by Chinese.  Thus, out of the 85 billion gallons of oil consumed globally on a daily basis, the US sucks up 20 billion.  And, if the Chinese ever were to discard all those bikes for cars....well, there wouldn't be enough oil for that.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

My Half of the Sky now available in India! Yes!

Culture Shock US

The other day I had to take my daughter for a podiatrist appointment.  She had foot surgery in the beginning of the summer, and this was a final check before she bounced back on the basketball court.  The appointment was for 3:30.
I had the whole afternoon planned out--have appointment, pick up dog food, meet sons for an early dinner.  The appointment I figured would not take more than 20 minutes, tops.
While we were in China I had heard nightmares of people waiting for their appointments.  A three-hour wait for a five-minute appointment.  In fact, with the top doctors, healthy people made appointments and then sold them like scalpers at a concert to the highest ill bidders. 
But we were back in the US.
At 4pm, though, we were still sitting in the waiting room.
The receptionist mentioned we were "next" and it would just be a "few more minutes" several times.  I sat there thinking that the receptionists know my number and in fact call me in advance of an appointment to remind me to be there.  Why can't they also call and say, "the doctor's running a bit behind today.  If you have some errands to run--some dog food to buy-- you might want to stop and get it.  Oh, and that date you have with your sons--one of whom is about to leave for college--cancel it."
When ten more minutes passed, and I realized my afternoon plan was crumbling, I turned to my daughter and said, "Please ask any questions you have.  Tell him of any pain or concerns. I need to leave."  I went outside, took some deep breaths, called my sons to tell them to eat without us, got some dog food, and reminded myself that at least I didn't have to buy my appointment time...

Monday, August 20, 2012

My dog trainers

A couple of years ago, we inherited an Australian Shepherd from a fraternity.  It had gone from "chick magnet" to pain in the rear.  We worked this dog through numerous trainers (including a few who suggested he be put down), until finally--during a last ditch effort--I discovered not just dog whisperers but people whisperers.  I took the dog to the trainers once a week, each time thinking that the trainers' lessons could apply to my life.

1. Don’t worry about the dog.  Focus on what you’re doing.
(How many times do I get so worried about my kids, husband, other relatives that I forget altogether what I'm doing?)

2. Know your space...and maintain it.  

3. Do you know how to give a correction?  
(I didn't.) 

4. What did you learn today?  Not what did you see me do.

5. You don’t even know what you’re saying.  How do you expect the dog to know?  
(This is a reminder to me all the time in writing....What are you trying to say???)

Thanks to Nick and Kristie at the Calero Pet Retreat, we now have a dear dog...and I've discovered stuff about myself that I wouldn't have taken the time to ponder.  I still return once in a while for training...for the both of us. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Images of China

Honking is less of a warning and more of an announcement:  “Here I am.”  There is a rhythm to the way people travel on the roads, the people, the dogs, the cattle, the motorbikes, the trucks, the cars.  (It was not obvious to me what the pattern was--but they did manage to avoid hitting one another.)

There’s no such things as wait your turn.  You just go.  Even in the airport, as the kids and I waited for someone to check that we had the right luggage--there was actually someone checking those tags--people just bulldozed in front of us.
There's a lack of personal space.  Whereas I'm used to a bubble of space around me that I consider mine,  people were always trampling on my bubble.  

There's not a concept of 'do not litter.'  It's more, "I'm done with this (tissue, milk carton, wrapper, etc.).  Let me get it out of my hands as fast as possible."    

There's a lack of water available for play--no jet skiing or scuba diving or canoeing or swimming.  The waterways we saw were dirty.

Bargaining (except in department stores) is the nature of life.  The seller goes high.  I go low.  We meet in the middle, theoretically both satisfied.

My husband said if he looked at things through the eyes of tourist, all of it was interesting.  That we should always remember to do that no matter where we are.  For, if one thinks about it, that's all we are:  tourists on this earth.
Finally, and I just realized this (duh), there really is no "China" or "Japan" or "America."  Well, perhaps there are outlines of those countries, but the content is always evolving.. always dynamic...ever-changing.  China especially so.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Nothing Wrong with 'Cholera' Magnet

One of the reasons we were in Hangzhou was to help my eldest daughter get settled into volunteering at Zhejiang hospital.  Since her interest is medicine, and there was a Chinese medicine museum nearby, we thought we'd go take a look.  I don't remember too much other than the building was hard to find, and we kept racing from one spot of shade to another as we tried to find the entrance.  At one point, we thought we'd found it and raced inside an air-conditioned building.  There were doctor's faces all over the wall, and a cashier who looked like she might be dispensing tickets.  She wasn't.  It was a true Chinese medicine clinic.  The thought of going out in the sun again made us all feel a bit sick, so we stared at the photos of the doctors as if this were the museum.
When we eventually found the museum, it was not air-conditioned.
"It's to preserve the style of the building," my husband said.

"Are they interested in preserving style or brain cells?"  I countered.
Like I said, I don't remember too much.  There were a lot of quack doctors in the beginning, but the science got serious and many discoveries were made in the last dynasty.
We left the oven--I mean museum-- and went into a dispensary where people were huddled on the ground next to a bin of ice water.  I saw this one child drink a cup full.  I shuddered, thinking there's no way that water is clean.  Then another woman did the same.  What was wrong with these people, and why was this cholera magnet in the middle of a dispensary?
I looked closer and the people were getting hot cups of tea from a container and then cooling them in this bin of ice water.  What a lovely idea.  We all quickly did the same.

Monday, August 13, 2012

China's Ten Commandments

Wherever we went in the city, there were always large signboards espousing different values: Be kind to the elderly; be environmentally conscious; a girl baby is as precious is a boy; no spitting; be polite and honest;  no smoking in public, etc.   Given that the government had allowed an investor to ruin the beaches in Fujian, people spit so often that at least two of us had been accidental targets, and we chose restaurants based on which one had the least smoke, I'm not sure the signboards alone did the job.  But it seemed a great idea.  And I wandered by one, "Be happy in what you do," and was immersed into self-reflection.  Perhaps we could use some of these signboards....

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Bike Passport Please

In Hangzhou, the kids and I set off on our own to bike around West Lake.  Biking around the lake was touted as one of the top ten things to do.  I loaded up on Chinese currency (what I thought was a lot) and found the bike kiosk, of which there are many in the city.  The woman at the kiosk took one look at my face and handed me a laminated sheet in English.  The rules were simple enough except for two things: the price seemed outrageous for China, charging $17 a day plus $34 deposit per bike....and while I'd brought just enough money, I didn't have the necessary document.
"You need my passport?" I asked, thinking this isn't international travel, just a ride around the lake.
The woman said I could just write down the passport number and that would be good enough.  The kids frowned.  Nobody could remember their numbers.  I quickly made up a sequence of passport-like numbers.  It wasn't as if we were going to run off with these bikes.
Later, when we tried to return the bikes to the same kiosk it was a fiasco.  Although she was standing right in front of us, she insisted she was closed.  I would have left our bikes and gone on, but I kind of wanted my deposit back.  She said we could return the bikes somewhere else.  We went there.  That kiosk was "closed" too.  So we tried a third one.  The third one was the charm.  Not only did the lady return our deposit, but she returned most of the daily-use fee.  Instead of $17, she only charged us 1.70.
What was that about?  My brother-in-law said that we'd met a kind kiosk woman, someone willing to treat us as locals rather than take advantage of our foreign status.  He said the passport issue is common.  Some amenities (like bus passes, store ownership, reasonable prices) are only granted to Chinese citizens.    

Friday, August 10, 2012

Riding China's Bullet

Not all the government's decisions are as bad as damming the ocean to line the oyster-farm investor (and politician's) pockets.  The government decided that China needed bullet trains, and since 2007 the country has had bullet trains.  Today there are over 8,000 miles of high-speed track criss-crossing the country.  It was amazingly affordable, with a three-hour train ride costing but $20 in second class.
The only downside to second class, was that it was overbooked.  People would get "standing" seats, and then as soon as I vacated my seat for any reason, I'd return to find someone else sitting there.  Although people were always nice about returning my seat, it was awkward.  First class (which was only a few dollars more) was an entirely different story.  In fact, the one time we rode it, we were almost the only people in the car, a waitress came by with a free snack, and, oh, the quiet.
By 2015, China plans to have 24,850 miles worth of track, the system connecting every city in China with over a half million residents.  What a marvel.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Tea Tasting Ceremony?

After a long sweaty day, we went up to our third floor to take a shower.  My husband went into the bathroom first.  I heard him call out that the water pressure was low.  The next thing he was standing wrapped in a towel with suds all over himself.  There was no water.  
I suggested we try the second floor—perhaps the water might have made it up that high.  So I put my bathing suit on and we went down there.  He was in the shower, trying to get water, when my brother-in-law came up.  He said something about important business, a friend, downstairs.  I didn’t catch it.  So he shouted through the shower door before rushing off.  My husband came out of the bathroom, but instead of mentioning this all-important business, said that there wasn't water on the 2nd floor either.  He suggested we  go to the well.  
So I in my bathing suit and he--soapy and with but a towel around him--walked down to rinse off at the well.  I asked what his brother had said that was so important, and he said that he had some important things to take care of at work.  A friend would be by later with tea.  
We got downstairs in all our finery to be greeted by this friend.  Perhaps "later" means anytime after now.  The friend didn't raise an eyebrow, and my husband didn't miss a beat.  He acted as if it was normal to run around naked in a towel with suds on his shoulder....and normal to have his wife prancing about in her bathing suit.  
We sat in suds and sweat, and this man gave us a tea-tasting time.  He had brought four kinds of Oolong tea.  The Chinese tea cups are small, slightly larger than a thimble.  He poured boiling water into a small container holding tea leaves.  Then he strained the tea into a tiny pitcher.  He poured the tea from the pitcher into our thimble-sized cups.  The first pour was always to make the tea cup hot.  Like wine, after the third cup, I couldn’t tell the difference.  
It was fun... and funny.  
When the friend left, we went out under the stars and took a well shower.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

In Search of the Beach

While rinsing off with cold well water relieved the heat of the day, it wasn't as exciting as, say, the beach.  My brother-in-law suggested a trip.  He'd never been, but would be happy to take us.  We set out in two cars, dressed in our swimsuits, with towels, even a picnic.  We drove to this place which used to be a small island but had recently been connected to the mainland.
We all had visions of sandy beaches, warm water, a wonderful afternoon.
The roads once we got off the mainland were dirt, the going not clear.  My brother-in-law stopped several times to ask where the beach was and each time got a different answer.  So we went this way, then that.  Whenever my brother-in-law stopped, he really stopped.  He'd get out, ask directions, offer the person a cigarette as thanks, then chat about who knows what. It was almost more fun watching him find his way than people-watching at the beach. (At least for me.)  The kids kept asking, "Where is this beach?"
It turned out, after two hours of driving around, that there's no longer a beach.  Some investor came in and wanted to build an oyster farm.  He got permission from officials to dam the ocean.  End of beach.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Quietly Doing it His Way

It was hot and humid and hot.  We spent a great deal of time splashing around at the family well.  One morning I went for a splash and spotted movement near the outdoor sink.  Pigeons, two of them, were tied up beneath the sink.  My father-in-law caught them with his hat and was keeping them as pets.  They didn't look very happy tied to a string, though.  So we went out in search of a bird cage.  However, Chinese bird cages are the tiny bamboo ones meant to hold small singing sparrows, ones that can be carried to the park to sing with other birds.  A pigeon, much less two, would barely squeeze in.  I suggested we build a cage.
So we went to town and found a wire shop.  Turned out the owner of the shop used to ride to high school each day with my husband.  So the man not only gave us a good deal, but delivered the wire and let us borrow the shop's wire cutters.
Then we started building.  Talk about 1001 opinions.  I had images of an 8ft aviary.  My father-in-law worried about his garden being ruined.  My husband said just a small cage was enough. The children all had opinions--make it round, make it square.  Dinner was called and my brother-in-law came in, took over, and just slap dash put something together.  My father-in-law smiled and thanked everyone.
The next morning when my husband and I got up before 6am to revamp some of the corners, my father-in-law had pre-empted us.  He'd been up for hours and had already fixed everything just to his liking.  I had to smile.  He hadn't protested the creation, but had returned when noone else was there to "help," and fixed the cage to his liking.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Welcome Home

When we left Japan, it was onto to China. We arrived in Fuzhou (southern China) not only to a soldier saluting each and every deplaning passenger, but to my brother-in-law who had come to pick us up.  We chatted a bit, but it was late and I soon fell asleep.  The next thing I knew there was pounding on my window.
"We're at the restaurant," he said.  "Aren't you hungry?"
We all agreed that we were not.  We were just really tired.  So, he got back in the car and took us to his home.  I must tell you something about this home.  It is six stories high.  I once asked my brother-in-law why he'd built such a huge house.
"There's a floor for each one of my siblings," he explained.  "So you always have someplace to return home."
We trudged up the steps to the third floor, showered, were ready to climb in bed, when there was my brother-in-law again.
"Dinner's ready," he said.  "You must be hungry."
All we wanted to do was lay down and sleep, but he had gone to such effort.  So we went down and had noodles, and lychee the size of ping-pong balls.  An official --and delicious--welcome.

Friday, August 3, 2012


When we were in Japan it was rainy season.  We had not brought umbrellas.  One day we walked a mile or so to an art museum.  Rain had been sprinkling when we started out, but when we left the museum, it was pouring.  My eldest son spotted a large leaf he could use as an umbrella.  The rest of us just tried to hurry along.  However, my youngest daughter was on crutches and "hurry" took on a slower meaning.  She and I got stuck at a red light and stood in the pouring rain.  Along came a woman on a bike, wearing a full raincoat, and with a folded umbrella hanging from her bike handle.
 "Here." this woman said, handing the umbrella to my daughter.  "I don't need this.  You take it."  And with that she rode off.
Umbrella became our code word--for being kind.  When the kids would bicker over something, I would remind them of the selflessness of this stranger.  I would just say, "Umbrella."

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Images of Japan

In the ten days we roamed hither and yon in Japan visiting friends and relatives, we came away with several images:
**Nobody ate while walking, driving, sitting on the train, biking.  In fact, eating was a kind of ritual (done at certain times of the day.)  Nobody was fat.
**Public transportation made life accessible.  While there, we only sat in a car twice.  The rest of the time was walking, riding a bike, riding a train.  Even grannies rode their bikes.  The shinkansen was especially impressive, travelling at up to 190 m/hour, arriving halfway across the country in a few hours.
**People riding on the train didn’t talk on their cell phones—they switched to “manner mode."  If someone did accidentally get a call, it was amusing to watch.  It looked like some covert operation, as the person spoke with their hands up by their face blocking out the potentially annoying sound of their personal conversation. 
**Almost everywhere we went had directional signs in English, sometimes in Korean, Chinese.  
**Wifi was not everywhere.
**People ran around in yukatas and kimono--a nod to the old--as well as 3-piece suits and dresses.  But NOBODY wore saggers.

**And, although it seems silly to mention, the bathrooms were always a new experience.  The worst ones were the old-fashioned holes in the ground.  The best ones (like at the airport) had several buttons on the side, one button for bidet, one for shower, one for dryer.  At the same time, as soon as you sat down, a recording of rushing water would start up, masking any other sounds.  In these bathrooms, the sinks were also very high tech, with soap dispensing as soon as you put your hands beneath the dispenser, water flowing as soon as you put your hands under the spigot, and the hand dryer turning on as soon as you put your hands in this sideways waffle-iron type machine.  (Something I've only seen at the Tech Museum in San Jose.)

What People Are Saying About My Half of the Sky

My Half of the Sky was the BookSense Pick for August 2006 as well as a Forbes Book Club Pick.

"McBurney-Lin tells a wonderfully entertaining story with the traditional coming-of-age theme (which is experienced universally)...weaving in the cultural challenges of growing up in China's rapidly changing social system."
Mary Warpeha, co-President of the Minnesota Chapter of US-China Friendship Association
March 2010

"The novel ...includes many of the tales and the folk ways of the people living in the rural areas of South China, still followed provincially. The story takes place in current China, but could relate the dilemma of any young woman in rural China through the ages."
Kitty Trescott, National Board of the Midwest Region of US-China Friendship Association. March 2010

"A lot is expected of a young Chinese girl. My Half of the Sky by Jana McBurney-Lin is the story of Li Hui, a young girl who has just achieved marriageable age. She seeks to make the most of herself, but the expectations all around her make it difficult, as her parents seek to use her as pawn to their advantage, she is faced with what she believes to be true love. She must balance career, romance, and family, all to somehow make everyone happy, a tough endeavor indeed. An engaging and entertaining read from beginning to end, "My Half of the Sky" is a poignant tale of the modern Chinese woman, and recommended for community library collections.
--Midwest Book Review November, 2008

“It is a rare women’s novel that sensitively describes the life of a young educated woman in modern-day China in its full complexity, without resorting to unnecessary sentimentalism. Jana’s deep knowledge of the realities of life in China and Singapore makes the reading extra rewarding. In fact, with every new page the novel gets harder to put down and you find yourself gobbling it up before you know it. Finally, the author has given a voice to the Li Hui in all of us, as we struggle for the golden middle between tradition and the modern momentum of our world.”
Isabella Sluzek
Friends of the Museum Book Review 2008

You'll be rooting all the way for Li Hui as she struggles, ahead of the curve, to be her own woman in an emerging, modern China. Jana McBurney-Lin's My half of the Sky is a beautiful, witty, touching debut novel.
Thomas B. Sawyer
Head Writer TV Series "Murder, She Wrote,"
Author - The Sixteenth Man

A complex and mesmerizingly original tale of a young Chinese woman caught between the modern world and the pull of her ancient culture. McBurney-Lin’s intimate portrait of China sparks with insights and is peopled with characters so rich and alive, they seem to breathe on the page. Dazzling and unforgettable.
Caroline Leavitt,
Author - Girls in Trouble

McBurney-Lin's debut novel is a gift. Li Hui is a memorable heroine, a young woman torn between her heart and her culture.Her daunting journey is a trip into China's complicated soul, and a deeply moving exploration of love, honor, duty, and loss." Frank Baldwin, Author - Balling the Jack

My Half of the Sky is a wonderfully-crafted story that was obviously written with a piece of McBurney-Lin's heart. A masterpiece."
Lee Lofland, Author - Howdunit: Police Procedure and Investigation

My Half of the Sky heralds the arrival of a fantastic new storyteller. With artistry and precision, Jana McBurney-Lin's clear-eyed prose takes the reader on a new journey into a past world that speaks to a modern sensibility, a modern world, a modern woman. This is a book to be treasured.
Emily Rapp, Author - The Poster Child

Through vivid descriptions of sights and smells, Jana McBurney-Lin's My Half of the Sky is a haunting, emotional journey of what it means to be an honorable female in modern China. Jill Ferguson, Author - Sometimes Art Can't Save You