Archive for category: Fairly Odd Parents-Present

China: Good Kitsch is Dead, Long Live My Good Kitsch

11 Aug 2013
August 11, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the second post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

Body builder figurine from China

Finding more of this good kitsch was my quest. Click on image for a larger, more amazing view.

Just before our recent trip to China I waxed poetic about a Chinese treasure I brought back from the Middle Kingdom the last time we were there. My Chinese bodybuilder statuette was the perfect embodiment of good kitsch and I was hoping to find its long lost relatives on this trip. So I brought a photo of the figure with me, eager to show it to any shopkeeper I was forced to encounter. Amazingly, this didn’t happen until we got to Guangzhou, about two-thirds through our journey.

With each arrival to a new city we were introduced to a new tour guide. Up until Guangzhou we were with a group but this time we had our guide all to ourselves: Jerry. Jerry was not his real name, nor were Emily, Lily, or David the English names of our other guides. No subterfuge intended, everyone who works in the Chinese travel industry takes on a Western name. It’s easier for travelers to remember. Jerry was hard to forget.

When we first climbed into our Dongfeng minivan, Jerry introduced us to our driver, Tom. “You know,” he said, “we’re like Tom and Jerry.” A sense of humor I could appreciate; we’d get along just fine. And, in fact, this encouraged me to share my quest with Tom and Jerry. As soon as we strapped ourselves in, I got out my iPhone and showed Jerry my ceramic he-man. “I’m looking for more of these,” I said. Not surprisingly, he laughed. I explained its history and how important it was to find good kitsch. “Do you know what kitsch is?” He wasn’t sure. “You know, souvenirs that are so bad they’re good,” I replied. “There’s bad kitsch and there’s good kitsch. Bad kitsch is so bad it’s, well, just bad. But if you push a bit harder it can be so bad it’s good.” Considering this convoluted mindset was conveyed in English, I was gratified he got the nuanced gist. “Yes,” he said. “So bad it’s good!” We were going to get along just fine.

As we traversed Guangzhou that day he’d stop in front of a shop and say “Bad kitsch.” Yes, his training was almost complete. And as we left the famous Ancestral Home of the Chen Family in the center of the city Jerry announced “It’s time to go to a Friendship store.” Friendship stores were built in the 1950s to sell souvenirs and Western items to foreigners. By the time we first traveled to China in the late 1990s they had become forced stops for tourists who wanted to bring home “authentic” crafts, jade, and pearls. It was in one of these stores I found my ceramic man. Boy, was I excited.

But, Jerry warned me. “I don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for. Now they sell only high price Gucci bags and other famous brands. They’re catering to Western tastes.” Well, not this Westerner’s tastes. Why go to China to buy something you could get at home? We entered the store and Jerry introduced me to one of the salesladies. I pulled out my phone and, with Jerry translating my story, showed the woman my figurine. “I’m looking for these,” I said.

Guangzhou saleswoman

"What?! You're kidding me." I think that's how Jerry translated it.

Well, she started to laugh. “No, I’m serious.” She laughed even harder. I went to the next woman and repeated my quest. The look on her face says it all. Like the Ming Dynasty, the Golden Age of Chinese Tchotchkes was no more. And I had to settle for a terra cotta soldier reproduction instead.

When traveling to exotic places historic souvenirs are nice; but there’s nothing like finding good kitsch for that perfect memory.

Related posts: Read other stories about our trip back home to China.

China: The End

04 Aug 2013
August 4, 2013

During June and July 2013 my wife and I took our children, both born in China, back to see where they came from. It was an incredible trip for all of us. For my children it made a very abstract part of their lives real. For my wife and I it completed a circle we began in 1997. This is the first post in a series of stories about our trip. But if you know me, you’ll know I’m attracted to the fringes of any narrative. That’s where the memories are. I won’t be giving any interminably long and boring slide shows of the trip but if you want to take a look at some of the photographs I took, feel free to do so in the comfort of your own Internet café.

Flight to China

Proof we were on that flight to China (click image for larger proof)

To begin talking about our trip to China, let me start at the end. China is far, far away—12 hours ahead of us. This makes it easy to reset our real clocks. Well, we don’t have to. Our internal clocks were something else. Our trip home began early Monday morning, July 15 in Shanghai. We had to get up at 5 a.m. to catch our 8 o’clock flight to Beijing where we would catch our lift back to the States—New York’s JFK airport—and then a leisurely change of planes back to DC.

Flying within China is filled with intrigue and mystery. Throughout our trip we were constantly tested. And our flight home was no different. We always had a guide with us when we checked in for any flight and as we got to the front of the line at Shanghai’s Hongquio International Airport the agent took our passports. We had our tickets but something was wrong. I listened to our guide, Lynn, talk to the agent, trying to squeeze out any meaning I possibly could. Their exchange in Mandarin gave me no hint of the problem. Finally, Lynn told us “They have no record of your flight into China. Yes, they see the electronic ticket but they’re saying you weren’t on that flight [see photo proof above].” While our entry was stamped right there in our passports that didn’t seem to matter. We had to speak with her boss. I was getting antsy.

In addition, the agent informed us our luggage was overweight. This was certainly not news to us. We knew that from the beginning and were constantly reminded every time we checked in for a domestic flight. Luckily, because we were traveling in a larger group, others’ teensy-weensy bags offset our jumbo ones (so huge, by the way, that my strong youngest daughter was the go-to when each needed to be lifted onto the scale or retrieved from the rolling baggage claim—shameful isn’t it). So we never were penalized. But now we were alone, just the four of us. A little bit of Chinese obviously went a long way and she tagged our bags and sent them on, admonishing us not to do it again. Well, that was doable since we were leaving.

And, in hindsight, the four of us had come to the obvious conclusion: we could have—should have—packed lighter, smaller, better. Way better. In fact, we didn’t even leave any room for souvenirs. So heavy became even heavier. Even a small 12 inch Terra Cotta Warrior is not light. But it wasn’t like we didn’t think of it. Before we left I bought special space-saver bags for all of us. But even compressed, 18 days worth of underwear was pretty big and heavy. No need to throw it in our faces. We admit to our crime.

Once we were relieved of our luggage we felt victorious, light even. We had gotten through the entire Middle Kingdom paying no penalties for our heavy load. It was time to celebrate. We flew to Beijing and caught our 14 hour flight to New York. No matter how much entertainment appears on the video screen on the seat back in front of you, 14 hours is a long time to be crunched in Economy. My wife and I reminisced about our last trip to China to adopt our youngest. We got the deal of the century: business class on China Southern Airlines that was cheaper than United’s Economy. Now that was the way to fly. And when I was making our plane reservations this time, my wife implored me to “just see how much it would cost” to repeat our roomy lifestyle. Her hopes were dashed when I told her to add $12,000 to our travel budget for the four of us.

A Sea of Tranquility at the Beijing Airport

An oasis of peace and tranquility at the Beijing Airport. JFK should consider something similar for its valued customers flying in from Shanghai.

Upon arriving at JFK we waited as the line slowly moved through immigration. When we got to the front, guess what? There was no record of us being on the flight we had just come in on (what was that Shanghai ticket agent doing all of that time?). Once again, I was ready with proof. But the officer waved it off saying “I can see you just got off that plane. I’ll just scan your passports into the computer if I can get this piece of junk [the scanner] to work.” I thought “geez, the scanners all worked throughout China. The sequester really is hindering our government.” But I wasn’t worried; we had three hours to catch our final ride home.

Exiting immigration we took our bags and started looking for the American Airlines terminal. Elevators going the wrong way. Escalators broken (there never was a broken escalator in China, I reminisced). Time was moving and I was walking fast. At one point, my wife caught my arm and asked “Is there a reason you’re rushing?” With the prescience I am known for (well, okay, it’s anxiety but I choose to see it as a plus) I said “I’d rather be early than run to catch our plane.”

When we got to the self check-in at American I went to the kiosk and input our reservation code. It found us but said we had to see an agent. We waited in line; 50 minutes until our flight. I left the girls and the bags to find someone who could help us more quickly. Aren’t they always calling out “Anyone on the 5 p.m. flight to Scranton? Come to the front of the line.” Yes, this was America and they would take care of us. Nothing and no one came to our aid. I was afraid to look at my watch. But we finally got to a special agent.

Because of the time, they had closed the flight. But 50 minutes was more than enough time to get us to the gate. She reopened it and gave us our boarding passes. Finally, she said, “Please put your luggage on the scale.”

“Two of your bags are overweight.” “Please,” I told her, “we’ve been on planes and in airports for over 20 hours and just want to get home. Can you cut us some slack?” “I’m sorry but there’s nothing I can do. My boss is standing right here.” My wife offered money (to pay for the overweight luggage but one could consider it a bribe if you stretch it). At that point we didn’t care. We were tired. We were cranky. We were out of our minds.

Finally, the agent gave us an out: “One of your suitcases is underweight. Why don’t you move your excess to that bag?” Yes, we were out of our minds but not enough to realize that the total weight would simply be the same. What difference would it make? “I can let one heavy bag through but not two,” she said. Quickly, I unzipped the outer compartment of my own bag. It was filled with with all that, now dirty underwear I was traveling with. All of us grabbed it and stuffed it in the carry-on with our terra cotta statue and in my daughter’s suitcase. I’m glad we weren’t on The Amazing Race. Social media would have had a field day. We would have been the laughingstock of Twiiter.

One, two, three: we were done! She tagged our bags and off we went. Yes, of course, the whole excruciating and humiliating exercise was bogus. No one believed my bag was now underweight.

We ran to Security. I decided to stand in the shortest line for “Preferred” people. I didn’t care. I handed the agent our boarding passes and passports. “Please put the right boarding pass with the correct passport,” he said (gatekeepers, it seemed, were the same the world over). Geez, was I really home on American soil? We threw off our shoes. (Did you know you don’t have to take off your shoes when you go through Chinese airport security? Of course, you’re given a very intimate pat down instead.) And, despite my jet lag, I found room to multitask: checking the gate number while making sure I had all of our electronics, keys, and passports. We started running.

And we ran. My oldest led the way, followed by me, my youngest, with my wife falling farther and farther behind. Just one of us had to get to that gate to stop them from taking off without us. Ten minutes until boarding. And we ran and ran, for Gate 31 was, of course, at the very end of a very long concourse. We ran on moving escalators (I think there were four); we dodged fellow travelers who actually had enough time to catch their planes. We flew down that strip trying to keep hold of our souvenirs and dirty laundry. Hours later, or so it seemed, and totally out of breath, I arrived at the gate. Gulping for air I asked “Have you boarded yet, have you boarded!?” “Sir,” the agent calmly stated, “where are you going?”

Yes, we made our flight but it was now 24 hours since we began our trip back in Shanghai. It was a fine welcome home.

Related posts: Read other stories about our trip back home to China.

A Word About “Good Kitsch”

25 Jun 2013
June 25, 2013

My wife and I are taking our girls back to China at the end of June. Now that they’re old enough, we think it’s important for them to see where they came from. That being said, where they came from is not what China is today. However, I have no doubt they will be amazed and, well, more amazed. This will be the first time we’ve been back since we adopted our youngest in 1999. So, many of the changes will be apparent to us. Yet, I want to experience the country through my daughters’ eyes at least part of the time. The other part of the journey will be devoted to, um, other, more idiosyncratic pursuits.

Body builder figurine from China

The epitome of good kitsch. Click on image for a larger, more amazing view.

When you go to China on a tour, as all new adoptive parents do, your guides are required to take you shopping. You know, jade, cloisonne, and souvenirs that are usually quite mediocre—what I call “bad kitsch.” Susie and I were always surprised by our co-travelers, most of whom we had known for a year as waiting parents back in the States. When we stopped, they shopped till they dropped. The strange thing was all of us had voiced our disdain for these forced shopping sprees. In fact, we had a series of clandestine “meetings” to discuss these tchotchke pit stops and when we put it to a vote, we all agreed the next time we would dissuade our tour guides from taking us to these bargain vortices. We grudging acquiesced only when we were told they could get in trouble if they didn’t stop the bus in front of these stores (for foreigners only of course). But, surprise, surprise, each time we did all of our fellow travelers didn’t hesitate to buy, buy, and more buy.

So, on our last trip to China to adopt our now 15 year old (who was 15 months at the time), I hesitated to go into a shop for our latest shopping adventure. In fact, Susie decided to stay in the bus with our daughter while I perused. I told her “I’ll be back in a minute.”

Now, I should tell you that we are the consummate kitsch spotters. But it has to be good kitsch, not bad kitsch. And we know the difference. When I walked in and spotted this partially glazed ceramic body builder figurine, suddenly I was in 7th heaven. In fact, there were many of them in all sorts of poses all in satin-lined boxes. But I only bought this one and it now proudly sits on my bookcase.

When I came back to the bus and showed my treasure to my wife, she was very excited. It was the best thing we brought back from China (excluding our daughter, of course). Yet no one else was excited for me (they were very happy with their new “authentic” Chinese swords and earrings). But I was the outlier. Purveyor of fine junk, all these years I kicked myself for not buying one of each pose.

Last week it suddenly occurred to me: I’m being given a second chance. I took this pic (with a little Photoshop “this and that”) to show both sides of my treasure. And I will bring this photo with me to China, showing every shopkeeper I am forced to confront. I’m on the prowl for this good kitsch. And now that I am on a quest, I’m getting pretty excited.

That Nurture Thing

24 Mar 2013
March 24, 2013
Photo of Sprigg

Peter Sprigg doesn't believe that same-sex marriage is as good for children as a heterosexual marriage. To him the biological trumps everything.

As I walked home from work the other day I listened to NPR’s All Things Considered. This is my “me” time.

Gay marriage is a trending topic these days and that day the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) had just endorsed same-sex marriage. The data, over sixty studies, showed no difference in the well-being of children raised by gay and lesbian couples than of children of heterosexual couples. You would think the studies, covering a wide breath of childhood metrics from emotional well-being to academic achievement, would prove the point nicely. But, of course, not to everyone.

As part of NPR’s “balanced” approach to reporting, commentator Alix Spiegel interviewed, not only a pediatrician who helped craft the Academy’s review, but Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the conservative Christian public policy organization, the Family Research Council. He reviewed the same studies but came to a very different conclusion. Here is the transcript of his interview (emphasis mine):

PETER SPRIGG: I think it reflects more political correctness than it does any actual findings of the research in terms of the well-being of children.

SPIEGEL: Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the conservative Christian public policy organization, the Family Research Council, says he has reviewed much of the same research, but not surprisingly has come to a very different conclusion. Sprigg says that the AAP is right that marriage is advantageous, but wrong about the cause of that advantage.

SPRIGG: The demonstrable benefits of being raised by married parents relate in large part to the benefits of being bonded to the mother and father whose union created you, who gave you life.

SPIEGEL: In other words, the advantage comes from the biological bond between the two parents and their child.

SPRIGG: And so it’s not valid to assume that homosexual couples who are allowed to legally marry would be able to transmit the same benefits to their children.

SPIEGEL: The AAP, though, isn’t alone in asserting that the children of gay parents seem to fare just as well as the children of heterosexual parents. In 2005, the American Psychological Association reviewed the research and came to the same conclusion.

If the biological bond is so critical to the well-being of children, Mr. Sprigg, why are my adopted girls so well-adjusted, good students, and critical thinkers? And I’m in a “traditional” marriage. Nature can be important, but love is pure nurture. And you don’t have to be straight to experience that!

Mr. Sprigg, you’re more than misguided. Your religious beliefs have blinded you to the facts. And my family and the families of my gay and lesbian friends and relatives are the facts.

Related: Read or listen to the entire story on NPR.

Just a Little Comfort Food is All I Need

07 Mar 2013
March 7, 2013

The woman in the next aisle had eaten her hamentashen before she got to the cashier!

I live in both a very Jewish and a very Latino suburb of DC. It’s an interesting mix: wonderful ethnic restaurants and a multicultural place for my multicultural family.

Last night I paid an inaugural visit to our new kosher supermarket. It recently opened in a space previously inhabited by one of the grocery chains. I’ve been a bit outta sorts of late (nothing major) but suddenly I felt right at home. Now, I’m not a religious Jew. Not even close (okay, except for my obligatory attendance at Kol Nidre services every Yom Kipper—I like to hedge my bets). But, I find there’s something deeply comforting about being around other Jews. I really can’t explain it. It’s not like I attend synagogue. And I certainly don’t agree with orthodoxy or blind support for Israel. But seeing men walking to schul with their wide-brimmed fur hats and Orthodox women, hair covered and pushing a stroller, all set for Shabbat, is simply comforting. I was surprised. But the feeling came from down deep.

The fruit and veggie guy was restocking (and wearing a yarmelke). I noticed that the plastic bags for your vegetables were the same horrible ones the last market had. They are simply impossible to open. I had mentioned this to the prior big chain manager with no success. So, of course, I approached this new guy. Why not? It was a new regime. He immediately said “I KNOW! They’re horrible. I hate them too. We are getting new ones.” Ahh, so comforting. There’s nothing like a Jew agreeing with another Jew. (Of course, there’s also nothing like a Jew disagreeing with another Jew too, but more on that in a minute.)

I had a short list of things to get. The place looks virtually the same as it did when it was a regular grocery store. But as I went up and down the aisles I noticed a few things were different. Where was my Progresso Soup?? And when I went to get cat food, there was a miniscule selection of Bella’s preferred brand.

Just then another clerk walked by asking if I needed help. “Yes,” I said. “I think you need a greater selection of Fancy Feast.” “No problem,” he said. Feeling very good, I went on: “And where’s my Progresso Soup?” He grimaced and said “Sorry, it’s not kosher.” Ah, I remembered. I’m in a kosher grocery store. The store looked so “normal” I’d forgotten. “So, is Fancy Feast cat food kosher?” “Cat and dog food doesn’t have to be kosher,” he replied. Oh. This Jew learns something new every day.

Now, there’s a gray side to my Jewish connection: it’s the religious side. While there’s room for contemporary thought within the religion as a whole, the Orthodox have a narrower range of acceptance. Those Orthodox women I mentioned above? They are sequestered in separate sections of the synagogue. And then there are the “Ultra Orthodox.” Last year religious extremists attacked Jewish women who were thought to be dressing immodestly.

A crowd of ultra-Orthodox men jumped on 27-year-old Natali Mashiah’s car in the Haredi Ramat Beit Shemet Bet neighborhood, she said. Members of the crowd smashed her car windows and punctured her four tires before spilling bleach on the inside of her car, said the Beit Shemesh resident, adding that she believed the men were going to set her on fire. As she fled the car, she said she was hit on the head by a rock thrown from very close range.


In the land of orthodoxy, men are the rulers. So it is written.

Just this week, New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks, also took a look into a local kosher market in Brooklyn. The Orthodox, Brooks writes, seem, on the surface, quite modern as they place their groceries into their minivans. However, he says, they represent a counterculture. My decision to be a secular Jew, to mix and match parts of my culture and religion, is a choice I’ve made. To the Orthodox “obligations precede choices.”

As I was checking out I was thinking about this as I loaded my groceries onto the belt. An elderly woman in the next checkout line was saying to the cashier, “I bought three hamentaschen but they were so good I ate them all.” Her words and intonation: so, so, comforting. “Bubbe? Grandma?” As I reached for one of those rubber dividers used to separate your groceries from the next person’s in line, I read the ad printed on it: “Why don’t you have gefilte fish for supper tonight?” Suddenly, I was in my bubbe’s house. It felt good to be Jewish. And that was a choice I happily embraced.

Taking the Message to the Public

09 Sep 2012
September 9, 2012
Chamomile Tea Party Poster in the DC Metro

The Chamomile Tea Party’s First Ad in Washington, DC’s Metro (click image for larger view)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything on Life Outtacontext. But I’ve been busy.

With the upcoming election, there is more food for fodder than ever for my Chamomile Tea Party posters (and I have some new ones, so take a look). While I have my personal political beliefs, it’s interesting to step back and dissect this year’s political process. If you’re disgusted or scratching your head, you might want to take a look at an article in today’s Washington Post which sheds some light on why this (or any other) campaign is so negative.

I’ve been making these posters for just over two years. And while I’ve had some success in getting them out into the world (seen at rallies, and written about, I wanted to find another way of bringing the issues the “Party” stands for to the public.

So I thought BIG. I bought ad space in Washington, DC’s Metro, at one of the busiest stops in the system, Gallery Place. And the first of two ads went up this week.

If you’re in DC or know someone who is coming the Nation’s Capital, tell them they can find the poster on the Red Line platform at Gallery Place. And, feel free to pass this on to your friends, even if they aren’t nearby. They can stay in touch by “Liking” the Chamomile Tea Party on Facebook.

And, one more thing: from the beginning, I’ve given digital copies of my posters away for free. I want people to use them. But I’ve also had many ask if hardcopies are for sale. Well, now they are. If you feel so inclined, peruse the Chamomile Tea Party shop. They’re inexpensive and make great gifts!

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