Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Landmark of the Old South

The Yankees may have won the Civil War 150 years ago, but here in Richmond, Virginia, it's still being contested. Richmond was one of the last cities to desegregate, and the quiet grumbles of what that did to the city can still be heard. The Old South, meanwhile, is being kept alive here by a few key institutions, families, celebrations and monuments. A couple of days ago, my parents and I were invited to lunch at one of these key institutions by one of these key families: The Country Club of Virginia.

For the first time during Thanksgiving week, we got all dressed up - my father in a beautiful dark grey suit, my mother in a pair of knee-high black boots under a swingy black skirt with a gorgeous, deep-colored, tapestry jacket, and me in a pair of unconventionally cool and large-buckled high heels with a black knee-length pencil skirt, a tailored sweatshirt material jacket, accented with a multicolored scarf I'd bought in Shanghai. We looked awesome. We drove our shiny black Prius over to "The Club" while I snapped pictures of the grand, brick entryway and the gargantuan golf course with members' colonial homes overlooking it from the edges (presumably for this blog).

Just before getting out of the car, I made a joke about the Jews descending upon the old southern establishment. My father admonished me for it. No apologies from me, this place didn't allow Jews, blacks or other unconventional minorities into their membership until the 1990's. Even then, the one or two Jewish families that were allowed to join were assimilated, and/or converted whose roots had been in Richmond since the 1800's. And here we were, three real, 2nd/3rd generation Jewish people, waiting all dressed up to have lunch with a few of the proud members of this historic establishment.

They were waiting for us in the lobby. Each woman in her version of her Christmas-best red sweater, puffed and curled thinning blonde hair, neatly tied matching red silk scarves, and old Richmond accents to the nines. The men looked pretty normal - in fact, my dad was dressed quite appropriately given their fashion choices. For me and my mom, though, I couldn't decide if I felt vampy and frizzy around these people in our dark outfits with our dark, thick, overly-lush hair, or regal and proud to have been invited and arrived more stylish in the "cosmopolitan sense" than they. We were immediately introduced to the other guests of honor, a couple that had just returned from a three month posting in Shanghai.

"Are you John Doe who lived on the corner of Oak Lane and Kenmore? My brother used to go to your house all the time, and I used to play with your sister when I was a kid! Before my mother died, she used to play bridge with your mother ... do you remember my mother, her name was ..." My mother's excitement and monologue came to a decelerating end as she noticed John was being completely nonresponsive and attempting to change his body position so as not to face my mom. The hosts unhesitatingly swept us off to the main dining room.

We were seated at a round table amongst a high class Shoney's-like decor. I bet you didn't think there was ever such a thing. It looked like the place hadn't been changed since the 1970's, and neither had the menu. My vegetarian parents opted for the salad bar. I got a Waldorf Salad. I was placed between the recently returned couple - John Doe and his wife Jane. The host sat across from us and began the conversation.

"Now Kerin, I know you lived in China for quite some time, as did the Doe's. Now, tell me, did you live amongst the Chinese while you were there?"

"Excuse me?"

"Well, did you live AMONGST the CHaaaahhhNESE, if you know what I mean."

I did my best at answering appropriately what seemed to be the most ridiculous question ever. I wanted to ask her if she lived amongst Americans, but stopped myself with a mouthful of apples and walnuts. Subsequently, the couple took over. I first spent a bit of time talking to Jane - who was wonderful - originally from "The North" she moved to "The South" when she married her husband (once Jewish but no longer involved in it, so please don't mention to him, ok?), and jumped at the opportunity to live in Shanghai and New York when her husband's law firm offered him postings in both places.

John, however, began his conversation with me by telling me the networks he belonged to in Shanghai - the Harvard Law School alumni club, the Wharton alumni club, etc etc. He then recounted his academic accolades to me, reminding me that both those Ivy League schools were the MOST well-known schools in China and he was treated like a king there for it. I mentioned that I was the head of the Stanford alumni association while I was there, he shrugged it off saying that the Chinese unfortunately didn't know what Stanford was. Ummm.... another bite of apple and walnuts stopped me. He then started to teach me Chinese, show off his newly acquired language skills, tell me all about business ethics and what the Chinese are like. Oy Vay.

Lunch, finally, ended 2.5 hours later. It was actually pretty fun. I promised an email of places to go and people to meet for the couple when they return to Shanghai for a second stint this spring.

As my parents and I jumped into the car my mother made an interesting comment ... "That Old Richmond family, do you think it was any coincidence that she invited two "Jewish" families who had China connections?" Here in the Old South, once you've got a label, you've always got that label... Harvard or Wharton or Stanford or whatever it is, we can either choose to leave this Old Money society for a place where we'll be accepted, or fight for acceptance for the rest of our lives. For me and my family, we've left it either physically or emotionally. I think we are very lucky.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

American Indian Thanksgiving

My family accidentally happened upon a Thanksgiving concept that I believe is absolutely brilliant. The day before Thanksgiving we had a Thanksgiving dinner for all of our family and friends who are going to be out of town on Thursday. My dad is famous, apparently, for soft, deconstructed tacos that I had never been able to partake in - being in China and all. My sister was excited to try out one of our grandmother's famous traditional Jewish-Hungarian desserts. As of about two years ago my parents are now vegetarian and slow-food, organics-inspired.

The concept: Organic Vegetarian Jewish American Indian Thanksgiving

A buffet of fresh tomato salsa, homemade guacamole, corn-on-the-cob, soft corn-based tacos, white rice, black beans, cabbage salad, and meatless ground beef. Drinks were a selection of Navarro wines ... yuuum. And dessert was that cheese danish mentioned above.

I am awestruck by how truly appropriate this concept is given the ridiculousness with which "traditional" thanksgiving meals have hit the mainstream. I was reminded of this particular ridiculousness as we were standing in line at Whole Foods buying my favorite coffee (Mexican Zaragoza Select) yesterday when a 14 year-old, jolly, slightly-overfed girl in line behind us lamented the mass killing of turkeys on Thanksgiving every year. Her father was buying an enormous turkey and boxed stuffing. His turkey was a whopping $42.00!! He grunted in melancholy response, probably more upset about having spent the fortune on the bird.

So, please don't take me seriously about the fact that my family has chosen the politically correct track for Thanksgiving because anything related to PC and my family is strictly coincidental. Over our tofurkey soft tacos and corn-on-the-cob, we giggled about topics ranging from the sublime to the extraordinarily un-PC all shrouded and hidden in yiddish terms that seem to soften the impact.

Anyway, aside over, I am still proud to say that we avoided the mass marketing efforts of Hallmark and the poultry industry. I mean, who really believes the pilgrims ate like that? And, who decided on that meal? I'm mostly glad we avoided the mad crowds in the supermarkets and apparently quite a bit of moollah. We're in a recession, right? Kidding. We're still having our regular Thanksgiving meal today too. But at least we celebrated it appropriate-style the day before. Time to hit the gym.

Monday, November 24, 2008


I came back to the US exactly one week ago. Although I had been doing short stints coming back and forth to the US for about six months prior, nothing really prepared me for the inundation of reverse culturally shocking scenarios upon my homecoming. In fact, there were so many that I am starting a whole new topic on this particular subject.

American strollers are like the HUM-V’s of baby carriages. Now, perhaps I notice this because I have been spending a bit too much time in Noe Valley, the part of San Francisco that is nicknamed “stroller valley” due to its many young, yuppy families with an uncanny number of approximately 3 year-old kids. Regardless of why I’ve seen so many strollers, the number, sizes, complexity, and diversity of the vehicles has been a sight to behold.

I saw the jogging stroller with three large bicycle-like wheels, the turn-of-the-20th –century-styled stroller with a little cradle at the top of a very tall apparatus, the twin side-by-side exercise stroller with all-terrain wheels, another twin stroller bus-style with a front and back seat so large and cumbersome that it required a steering wheel for whoever was unlucky enough to push the thing.

I began to wonder, as I tripped over and staggered through a parking lot full of the multicolored and multi-themed parked and empty strollers at the entrance of the Noe Valley Farmer’s Market, what could this mean?

An idea: American consumerism has become so comprehensive that it even dominates the baby-stroller market. What was once a fairly straightforward product is now reflective of the complexity of owning a car. Strollers are a new way for individuals to prove to the outside world how they want to be seen. Parents are no longer just pushing their kid down the street, oh no, they are making a statement. I am not just a parent, I am an ATHLETE, I am RETRO, I am a BUS DRIVER, and on the side there happens to be this kid that is along for the ride.

So why is this shocking to me? Well, there’s China (where probably all these strollers are made, by the way), and when I walk down the street in China I think that I myself could use some all-terrain wheels at times. The sidewalks are downright dangerous – potholes, loose bricks, random poles, uneven cement, it’s tough to transport oneself, much less a kid, through the crowds, and considering the societal obsession with little babies, one would think that a highly diverse stroller market would exist there. It doesn’t.

People push the type of stroller I remember – the one with the little wheels, the type that can be folded up, that sometimes has a flap to protect the baby against too much sun or rain. The tried-and-true version is the way to go in China. Now, one could argue that a mature stroller market hasn’t developed in China because of lower incomes and a less prosperous society. Well, Chinese have more cash to spend than Americans right now, and they spend a much higher percentage on their children relative to their total income than Americans do. What I see here is that the strollers purchased by these Americans aren’t purchases for their children, but rather, for themselves. And if that’s the case, don’t expect Chinese parents to be buying anything of the like.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the aesthetics of the Noe Valley stroller parade without complaint.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Reverse Culture Shock

It's a perfect Sunday in Noe Valley, San Francisco - mid-sixties, sunny, calm. We took a walk down to a popular brunch joint nearby, enjoying delicious coffee, fresh, organic food, and the thick Sunday stack of the New York Times. I ordered an omelet with egg whites please, no cheese, and sliced tomatoes instead of hash browns on the side, gently apologizing to the server for an order that I felt was ridiculous. She took it down without hesitation while my friend giggled at me for even thinking it was a strange request.

Later, while reading the newspaper, I commented that I was pleasantly surprised that the news has been so interesting lately. Friend's response, "Right, that's what happens when your news isn't censored ..."

Hey, this is San Francisco where the air is clean, vegetarian egg-white omelets are the norm, and the news is interesting. I love it!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Beijing and Moving On ...

It should be such a schlep to come to Beijing. I feel like it should take more effort, and then I feel like being here, in the capital of one of the richest countries in the world, it should feel soulless, fast-paced, unwelcoming.

I can’t be more wrong. Every time I land in Beijing, the expanse of grassy land around the airport is the first to remind me that this is not what I am expecting. Yesterday it was grassy with blue skies and little wisps of white clouds. The air was clear with just a slight chill.

The airport has just undergone an enormous expansion and remodeling. I flew through its shiny, wide hallways, and out into the shortest taxi line I’ve ever seen in China. The taxis lined up in such an orderly way that I wondered which country I was in. My driver popped the trunk, jumped out of his cab, and gently hoisted my luggage into the back. We sat down in the front seat side-by-side, he roared his engine, turned up the radio to his favorite CD of Michael Jackson songs, and off we went.

“You foreigners like this Michael Jackson. We like him too. He can dance AND he can sing. And he has a couple signature moves that you just can’t forget, like this!” at which point the middle-aged cab driver grabbed his crotch and jerkily shrugged his shoulders. I haven’t laughed so hard in a while.

We drove down the newly paved highways lined with newly planted greenery. This road to Beijing was as welcoming as it could get. I remember this same road eight years ago as my first introduction to China. Potholes, bikes and trash lined it. Then our bus broke down, leaving us, a group of 50 high school students, waiting for an hour with our year’s worth of luggage on the shoulder of the highway. Now I was in the nicest, cleanest cab I think I’ve ever been in.

Beijing is wonderful. We drove straight downtown via the second ring road into the heart of the city – Wangfujing, an upscale shopping district just next to Tiananmen Square. Here I met with a colleague for lunch at the Oriental Plaza’s hotel restaurant called Made In China, an upscale northern Chinese restaurant. Tea was served in glass mugs lined with a sterling silver webbing. The dumplings were delicate and tiny, the rest of the food was lightly oiled, the stir-fried cabbage with dried prawns was just salty and green enough, service and stylish clientele were enough to make me want to eat there every day. It was a memorable lunch to say goodbye to a very special colleague and friend.

After work that evening, I headed north to Shangdi. This is a new high-tech district on the outskirts of Beijing that my host family from that high school year abroad had recently moved to. Here they had enough space to grow their own vegetables, and it was close to both my host mother’s work unit along with the hospital that Meimei spent about three years of her life in. My host mother called five times while I was in the cab to make sure the driver was driving the right way. When I arrived at the gate to their residential compound, she was standing outside poised to shove money at the cab driver before I could pay myself.

As we walked into the compound she said, “Oh yeah, we have a baby boy now! Nainai brought him from the north and he’s seven months old.”

And little baby they did have! His full name is Li Chengbing, but he goes by Jiujiu. The baby is chubby and smiles and gurgles almost constantly. After holding him for about two minutes, my host mother asked to have him back, mentioning that he had to pee. She sat on the edge of a nearby chair, baby held with his legs splayed between her open legs, his bottom naked, hanging out of his split leg pants, gurgling and grabbing his toes, while my host mother said, “Alright pee!! Shhhhhhh!! Pee!!!” At which point, he grunted and started to make the other instead. “That’s right, ERRR!!!” she said along with him. Both sitting there, grunting while Jiujiu pooed on the floor, I couldn’t help but laugh and laugh and laugh. She looked at me every once in a while and laughed too.

She said, “You see his head, it is so big while the rest of his body isn’t! This is the opposite of Meimei – her body grew long, but her head didn’t catch up for years!!”

I stayed that night through a delicious home cooked dinner with my host mother and the two ayis. Then, we put Jiujiu to sleep. He gurgled and giggled all the way until he was unconscious. Mama drove me back to the city center, driving 25 miles an hour on the highways. We arrived at the Bookworm – an old Beijing expat institution where Wifi, English books, yummy coffee and hipsters are in abundance. Here I met up with an old friend. Life, it seems, goes on.