Chinese Mega Malls

There’s a new super mall across the street from where I live in Kunming, China but I’ve never been inside. Why? I’m more enthralled with the old China with frog mongers and temples than the one that looks like was imported from Peoria. But this mall definitely wasn’t from Peoria, even if this mallwalker looks like the guy from the Six Flags commercial.

First, there was a China Beach out front…

Frontal nudity on floor three…

Roof-top riding stables…

I don’t know what they do with the rooftop manure, either. Then there’s balloon bunnies…

 And Water Babies, a place with individual pools for toddlers to pee in.

Bistros with hand painted Chenglish…

And convenient stores where canned oxygen is sold next to sexual aids.

The craziest thing in the Chinese mall wasn’t product placement or sky high pony rides, it was Carrot Nectar. I was expecting a Vitamin A rush, like a vegetable equivalent of an espresso, similar to what that overpriced Naked Carrot Juice from Whole Foods gives you. Wrongo. It tastes like carrot flavored syrup from a fruit cocktail can.

In spite of more shops to count, one important element was missing in this Chinese mega mall: people!

That’s because everyone shops on TaoBao

I much prefer the old China, where you can get a new iron fence and dried peppers at one shop. Not even Home Depot offers that.

I think I’ll leave the mall and follow Mr. Six to the local fruit market. Doo-de-do-de-doo-doo….


Bouncy House

Of course, it had to be on my watch. A kid at the school fun fair bounced out of the bouncy house (if you don’t know what a bouncy house is, it’s one of those rentable blow-up houses that are a cesspool of germs that you see at fairs and birthday parties). Anyway, this kid was jumping as if his feet were made of flubber and the next thing I knew he was doing a face plant on the concrete. My heart raced fearing a broken arm or knocked out teeth or a lawsuit. I left my station at the ticket table and dived into the crowds.

“We need a nurse at the bouncy house!” I yelled. “A kid flew out!”

While the bouncy boy got plastered with band-aids, I returned to my post of taking tickets, the once crowded attraction now as desolate as a broken roller coaster at the state fair. But I wasn’t thinking about the airborne boy who looked like his face had three skinned knees. All I was thinking about was how my life bounced off track. I mean, one year I’m shooting commercials with Micheal Jordan. The next, I’m a carnie in a city no one has ever heard of in China.

I doubt if I’ll put that on my resume. Ex-pat carnie loses a kid in the bouncy house.

After the school fair closed and the bouncy house was deflated, I went back to my apartment deflated, too.  I was thinking of the twists my life had taken. Where is that annoying GPS recalculating lady when you need her? The stars that I hitched my dreams to were black holes and I was entering the stage of life where I’d be attending more funerals than weddings. Yes, I was having a pity party but the violin music came to a halt when I turned on my computer and saw a message in my in box.

It was from a someone I hadn’t heard from in eons. Like half a life time. Someone I met in Cook County Jail who was the director of an inmate tutoring program called PACE.

I wasn’t an inmate in jail, I was a volunteer.

I volunteered in this literacy program in an earlier chapter of my life, one that would be in Part One if my life were a John Irving novel. I had just moved to Chicago, a farm kid who landed a job at a big ad agency who was afraid of the city. My father told me never to go West of State Street, so the first year I stayed locked up in my studio apartment at nights with a base ball bat in my lap. But my 23rd birthday (which also happened to be a Monday), I wanted to do something. That’s when I remembered seeing a sign in my church about this jail tutoring program on Mondays. I thought why not go to jail? Maybe hide a file in a birthday cake?

So on my 23rd birthday, I took the church van to Cook County Jail. It reeked of Lysol and cigarette butts and everything was beige from the bricks to the state issued wardrobe. But the real birthday surprise was the inmates. I was expecting to see old drunks like what Andy Griffith rounded up with Barney Fife, but they were just kids– many younger than me–which taught me a lesson quick: life wasn’t fair.

Then it hit me that some of those guys I tutored might still be in jail or dead. And while I had a lot of bouncy house moments in my life, all that some of these guys may have experienced were three hots and a cot.

So I responded to the email, condensing my life to 200 words (leaving out the bouncy house carnie bit). When I clicked SEND, a miracle happened. I bounced out of my pity party.

Then I thought about that kid who bounced out out of the bouncy house once more time. He’ll never forget that day. And years from now when his grand kids ask him about the scar on his cheek, hopefully, when he looks back on his life, it won’t be filled with regrets, but full of the unexpected, living his entire life like he did in that bouncy house, having fun and taking chances.

“One’s real life is often the life that one does not lead.”

Oscar Wilde

Maybe my life didn’t bounce off track after all.


Kids at Work

Chinese Elementary students make rose flavored moon cakes in Yunnan, China.


Why are these children working in a factory in China? Shouldn’t they be in school? Well, they are.

It was our elementary field trip to a moon cake factory in Yunnan, outside of Kunming.

Now if this were my hometown in Southwestern Michigan, the field trip would be to the Kellogg’s factory in Battle Creek where kids would take in the smell of burning corn before making crafts out of Froot Loops. But in China? A special section of the factory was reserved for our students to make moon cakes.

What are Moon cakes?

Moon cakes are Chinese a holiday favorite, like fruitcake, a tradition to bring to guests during the Fall Festival, even if you re-gift them the next year. I happen to LOVE them–especially the flavor we made that day, rose. The purplish goop is made up of crushed flower pedals and sugar, being a colorful version of almond paste with the texture of creamed spinach. The crust was as flaky as a blue ribbon winner at a State Fair. Yes, it was like eating a Renuzit sandwich.

The factory produces about fifty thousand moon cakes each day.

But this new employee? Maybe four.

The students put on the required work garb, the smallest size still too large for eight year-olds.

When they flapped their arms, the kids looked like red and white penguins.

While the factory tour might be different than what kids experience in the States, the bus ride was the same. Kids started inhaling their afternoon snacks at 9 am, their backpacks overloaded with enough seaweed chips, shrimp crisps, tomato flavored Pringles to survive a trip to the moon.

And if you thought a bus load of Doritos smelled bad.

I think about how this moon-cake adventure never could’ve happened in the States due to regulations. Then I thought of what a great learning experience it was, kids experiencing the monotony of manual labor. Sometimes, if you want kids to reach for the stars, you got to start with the moon, or at least a moon cake.



wǔ shí books, wǔ shí guns

I was on the other side of the world when the news hit, in the Mangkok district of Hong Kong, in a hotel room about the size of my first cubicle at Leo Burnett. I wasn’t doing touristy things or eating dim sum with this guy. I was sick, bedridden and the news on the television made me sicker.

It was coverage of the Las Vegas shootings.

I was tòng bù yù shēng (痛不欲生 ) or overwhelmed with sorrow.

It was awful. I was held hostage. Either I watched the breaking news or an Australian cooking show featuring crocodile quesadillas, which wasn’t appealing either. I turned back to BBC and listened to the reporter. Did he say twenty-three guns in this guys’ hotel room or had the cold meds made my mind muddy? Then this guy had nineteen more weapons at his home? Plus five hand guns and two more shot guns at his Reno residence?

That’s forty nine guns.

I can’t even check out that many books at Chicago’s Public Library without a problem.

Trust me. I know. I checked out a book in 2013 and left it in China. Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies. I had to change my name and address to get a new library card. Either that, or get my mug shot added to Chicago Library’s Ten Most wanted list.

Upon returning to China, I bequeathed my library card to one of my best friends who will rename anonymous (though her last name rhymes with Squirrel-Gutter). She hasn’t run up any fines but every time she puts a book on hold, a notice ends up in my inbox in China.

Nine thousand miles away. Behind the Great FireWall where Google and YouTube and FB are banned. But Chicago Public Library has it figured out.

Yet, this man in Las Vegas legally purchasing forty nine guns and his local police department was none the wiser.

Now fifty (wǔ shí or 五十)  is the limit of books you can legally check out from the Chicago Public Library. Don’t you think that should also be the cap for guns one can own?

Granted, libraries aren’t without their problems. Once, I had to use a computer at the CPL branch on Belmont Avenue and the only machine open was next to a guy viewing something other than microfiche. He was viewing porn, but lucky with headphones. When I complained to the librarian, she informed this patron was protected by the first First Amendment. Watching porn in public libraries is also protected in  the state of New York, according to this NPR story. But porn won’t kill you. Libraries are also a haven for pick pockets, as I have had both a wallet and computer bag lifted while intensely working on a project. Pickpockets won’t kill, you either.

But one thing isn’t allowed at Chicago’s Public Libraries: concealed guns.

Laura Bush is known for saying,  “I have found the most valuable thing in my wallet is my library card. “

And Walter Cronkite said, “Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.”

Unfortunately, there are a lot more guns in our country than library cards. There are more registered guns than people in this country and not every citizen has a legal library card. Right, Miss Squirrel-Gutter?

As of 2013, there were over five times as many registered gun dealers– (58,344) than public libraries. You can see how many gun dealers are in your state.

I got sick thinking about the shootings, the deaths, the wounded, the out of control violence in nation that’s still digging out from hurricanes. I turned off the TV and thought about when I was in grade school, how a classmate accidentally shot her sister with her father’s shot gun, thinking the noise outside was a prowler.  I’ll never forget seeing her school picture on the front page of the local newspaper. Even thought that was over forty years ago, I’m sure my classmate deals with that headline everyday. As will those who lived through Las Vegas.

Hopefully, the issue of gun control won’t be silenced this time. 为时不晚 – wéi shíbù wǎn – it is not too late.

Until then, maybe librarians should run the NRA.

Prayer bells at Wong Tai Sin Temple, Hong Kong.




Living overseas means there’s always new laws that cause for a new stamp in your passport. This week, I had to go to Bangkok to jump through a few hoops, only to have those hoops change. After a week of sitting around and waiting for needed documents, my employer sent me home before I ran out of clean underwear.
But the trip wasn’t a wash (pardon the pun).

I saw a new side of Bangkok, really new: the Bangkok Museum of Contemporary Art.

Located near the Siam Discovery Center at the SIAM center, it was pretty much me and lots of high school students more interested in taking selfies than the art hanging on the walls.

But I also had time to ponder things…like why a sheet hanging on the wall is art.

Of how monks have more faith than the rest of us. They are the only ones who dare walking barefoot on the streets…that is, when they are not taking a bus.

And how all jelly isn’t meant for toast.

But every time I go to Bangkok, my legs get chewed up by mosquitoes. Yet, many of the ladies who wear short skirts on the streets, they don’t have one bite! I stopped to ask one why she wasn’t bothered by mosquitoes. She appreciated the conversation then laughed at my scabby legs before allowing me to take her picture.

I also love the other woman workers…

And the train track vendor.

Plus the dancers at the Erawan Shrine that got bombed in 2015. The incense is so thick it burns your  eyes,

And moms taking walks with their daughters.

And Pad Thai Lunch counters with a fifty baht blue plate special (one buck fifty).

Durian blizzards at Dairy Queen.

And PRADA fashion you don’t need because there will never be a blizzard.

No parking zones…

But tons of traffic…

The health juice lady,

And if you’re wondering what ever happened to the Marlboro man, he has a new ad career in Thailand.

Plus the gods who prefer offerings of Fanta to Pepsi.

And toilet signage that reminds you not to get busy…

And toilet paper machines telling you the price.

Because in Bangkok, there’s never a dull moment, even when you’re waiting for paperwork.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *