Epistle 3 of Leon's China Chronicles


*****Saturn's Day, September 6, 2003*****


Some of you might be wondering where the heck Tong Liao City is. I was wondering the same thing until I looked at a map somewhere (maybe Lonely Planet). None of the online maps show Tong Liao. Most only show Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. Tong Liao is in the far eastern part of Inner Mongolia. There are only 300,000 people in the city limits. [I write "only" because in China, that is a small population]. It is north by northwest from Bei Jing and northwest from Shen Yang. I believe that Shen Yang is the capital of an adjacent province and has perhaps 10 million people. I don't even want to know how many people live in Bei Jing. Probably more people in Bei Jing than in the whole United States.

It is my hope and intention to put Tong Liao on the map. I haven't figured out how I'm going to do it yet, but I'll think of something. Give me a year to figure out what I'm going to do.


I'm pretty much all better, but my son still has a cough and slight fever. As the weather gets colder and colder, I wish my son and I were completely healthy.


I had the most delicious dish this evening. It consists of tomatoes an scrambled eggs. It is like 90% tomato and the rest scrambled egg. Who'd have thought that tomatoes and scrambled eggs were such a good match??? For lunch I had some instant Korean style Ramen. Mmmmm GOOD! Taijing and I ate well. They have kimchi here. In fact, a lot of restaurants serve it as a side dish. The Chinese don't call it "kimchi" however. They use their own language and call it "Spicy Cabbage". I bought some kimchi today at the super market.

Chinese cheese is something else! You gotta try it. I can explain the shape, color, and texture, but I cannot explain the taste exactly. Like the milk, it comes in hermetically sealed, unrefrigerated packages. It comes in relatively small chunks of various shapes and sizes... and flavors. It has the texture of Galvanized rubber. However, all of it is the same color: beige.


I keep thinking that there has got to be a "Korea Town" here, but none of the Han Chinese know where it is (or if one even exists). I have met two JoSeonJok people already, so I know that they are here,... somewhere. I'll find out... somehow. I'm not in any hurry to find them, but it would really be nice to have some people to communicate with, besides my co-workers.

*****Sun's Day, September 7, 2003*****


This is the second so-called communist country that I've been to. When at Ricks College (where I attended for one year before transferring to BYU), I had a writing class. The writing class involved some reading and we were to write about the things that we read. One of the books that we read was a book about communism.

Communism, I believe, is an economic philosophy introduced by Karl Marx. The primary directive of "communism" is that no one person should be allowed to own property. All property is becomes property of ALL the people, i.e., all things are held in "common". That's why it is called "communism". The secondary directive of "communism" is that no person should be considered better than any other person. Communism aims at the eradication of social strata. Literally all human are considered "equal" in communism. In capitalist America, the preamble of the constitution sounds really good, but no one really follows it. Even when it was written by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson had a bunch of slaves. I'm not criticizing, I'm pointing out the irony. Far be it from me to criticize the greatest nation in the world, with all it's tired, homeless, starving and wretched people!


The problem with communist countries is two fold. While the economic principles espoused by Marxism are sound, the problem resides in the fact that communist countries are governed by a small group of people that are NOT elected by the popular vote. Too much power invested in too few people, if you ask me. The second problem is that there is a huge gap between theory and practice. Effecting a TRUE and PURE communist society is almost impossible and most certainly impractical. First of all, it is impossible for the government to employ every single individual in a country. Then, you get subversives or dissidents, whom the government refuses to employ. Then, you have a whole lot of unemployed people forced to make a living any way they can. It is such people that become your street merchants, your farmers, your cyclo-drivers, your prostitutes and so on. Furthermore, the business managers get a lot of fringe benefits. Sure, their salary is capped by law, but they can give themselves all kinds of benefits, such as a car (provided by the company), "business trips" (paid for by the company), insurance (paid for by the company), and so on. Your average employee has to pay for all of those things out of his/her salary. So, the business managers become quite rich and the cast system, which was to be avoided in theory is maintained in practice.

According to pure communist thought, no one is to be above another. There is a Russian proverb, the wording of which I cannot exactly remember, but basically says that the head of the wheat plant that is above the rest is empty. This proverb suggests that the person who sets himself above others is useless to the commonwealth. This proverb embodies communist thought. However, what I see in China's youth is the opposite. When asked what they want to be (in the future), they often respond like this:

"I want to be the richest man/woman in China/the world."

"I want to be a doctor/lawyer/businessman/businesswoman, so I can make a lot of money."

The youth that I am teaching, definitely do not have traditional communist values. Also, it would seem that salaries are NOT all equal in China, especially depending upon region. For example, the salaries in Bei Jing are double what they are here. Indeed, one could not survive in Bei Jing on a Tong Liao salary. This is inevitable. The bigger the city, the higher the value of property, and thus, the higher the rents, and thus the higher the cost of necessities, and so on. Salaries must be high enough to support the population, or else the whole system would collapse. So, the point is that there is no true/pure communist society in this world. Communism is an idealistic philosophy which is impossible to realize completely.

I believe that in recent years, the Chinese government has also recognized that pure communist economic policy stifles economic growth, AND by stifling economic growth, China reduces it's power and competitiveness in the world economy. So, it has been breaking away from tradition Marxist values. For instance, I believe that Shang Hai has been established as a "free" economic zone.


Now I've got sow bugs in the house. Don't ask me why they are called sow bugs. Their body shape only slightly resembles a sow. They are more like mini armadillos, but with a lot more legs. I don't mind the little crustaceans. They only eat decaying matter. They are harmless to humans. Lots of centipedes. I'm not sure what they eat. I think they eat the same thing as sow bugs. (We're talking about the small centipedes). I know the BIG ones have been known to eat small fish and frogs. Mosquitoes are dying out. I guess it's getting too cold for them. But there are a few lingerers in the house. Flies and moths are increasing actually. What's up with that? They are supposed to lie dormant for the winter, like the mosquitoes. And flies and moths are harder to kill than mosquitoes. OH, and I've got gnats on my computer screen as I write this. [When I write "gnat", I mean it is too small for me to distinguish, and even if I could distinguish its feature, I still wouldn't know what it is, cause my knowledge of bugs doesn't go into the realm of microscopic. I mean these bugs are small!] I'd sure like to know how all these bugs are getting in here.

Well, there is a centimeter gap under the front door. Many could be coming in that way. In fact, I saw a mouse in my house the other day. When it saw me, it ran for the front door and went out through that centimeter gap. If a mouse can get in, you know bugs can get in. I haven't figured out if I should be worried that there was a mouse in my house, or not. I mean I know that mice and rats can carry diseases, but I live in relatively pristine Inner Mongolia. What diseases could an Inner Mongolian mouse possibly carry? You know what? The main reason, I think, that I have chosen not to worry about this mouse-sighting is because there's not much I can do about it.

If I buy some mouse poison (assuming there is any in this city), then the mouse dies somewhere in a corner of the house, starts to decay, then the flies start to hatch their eggs on the decaying body. Then, there will be maggots, then a ton more flies with decaying, bacteria-infected mouse flesh on their little, microscopic beaks, then the flies spread the bacteria all over the damned house, then Taijing and I will be coming down with some life-threatening parasite or something. No... No mouse poison. And most likely, the mouse is (mice are) feeding on creepy-crawly fauna in my home. The mice are probably the best thing that has happened to me yet.

Anyways, I'm thinking that if I were to go to a shop asking for rodent killer, the shop keeper would say: "Buy a cat." Maybe the mice (and rats) are the reason that cats are such popular pets here.

[For you non-native speakers, I really think it is worthwhile for you to learn the difference between a mouse and a rat. First of all there is a difference in size, BUT that is NOT the only difference. A mouse is generally smaller than a rat. Another difference is habitat. Mice live far from water. Rats live very near water. (Hence, you will find a lot of rats in sewers and harbors). There are some physical characteristics which differ, as well. Rats generally have longer hair and longer tails in proportion to their bodies. Mice generally have larger ears in proportion to their bodies. All of this explanation really doesn't do justice. You'd really have to see a mouse and a rat side by side and contrast them for yourself. It was definitely a mouse that I saw in my house. There probably aren't any rats within a hundred mile of this place, because it is like a desert. It seems like some people planted shrubs, grass, and trees here, because none of it looks indigenous to this region. Then agian, I don't what would be indigenous to this region. Maybe a few herbs (first definition of the word) and some sage brush.]

*****Moon's Day, September 8, 2003*****


Every Monday is flag-raising day. The whole school assembles out on the field for the flag-raising ceremony. This time, all the teachers were "sporting" blue dress shirts and ties, and some even had on their blazers. Evidently, last week I was the only one wearing a tie to the flag-raising ceremony. The principal (headmaster) "bawled out" all the teachers (except me) for their lack of respect for the flag-raising ceremony. He used me as an example of what one should wear to the flag-raising ceremony.

The funny thing is I don't really like to wear a tie, but all I have is white dress shirts and it seems silly to wear a white dress shirt without a tie. Anyways, it was good. I think teachers should have a dress code of some sort. I didn't mean to make anyone look bad, though.

*****Tui's Day, September 9, 2003*****


I almost burned the house down, Monday morning (early morning, just before dawn). I hate to tell you what happened, because I feel like a complete idiot, but I will tell you anyways. I told you in the previous letter that I had fulfilled my quest for candles. Well, I decided to light one of the candles one night in order to keep the flies, moths, and mosquitoes off my son and me while we sleep. I mounted the candle on a plastic dish (expendable dish) by melting some wax then mounting the candle on the melted wax and holding it in place until it hardened. This done, I decided that there was still a possibility that the candle might tip over and set the house on fire, so I put the candle (which was now stuck to the dish) in a metallic frying pan. Then, I went to sleep. At five A.M. I was awakened by smoke. I saw this huge blaze of fire emanating from the frying pan. The candle had melted away and the flame had caught the plastic dish on fire, and if you know the smell of burning plastic, you know how horrible it was to have one's whole house smelling like that. I quickly got up and took the pan outside. The plastic was still burning. This was was not the kind of fire that you sit around roasting marshmallows. Besides, I was afraid the neighbors might get a whiff of what was going on, so I went back into the house, got some water and dowsed the bugger. Then, I went back inside to go back to sleep. The whole house reeked of burnt plastic. So, picked up my son and went for a walk while the house aired out. I opened all the windows and the front door, and I turned on the fan above the stove to blow out the smoke. After walking around the campus for a while, I decided to go back. Most of the smoke smell was gone. It was still dark, so I laid Taijing down and tried to go back to sleep. I couldn't. And, I am not one to lie in bed doing nothing, so I got up. When, I turned on the light, I saw that there was soot all over the bloody room... all over EVERYTHING. I spent the next two hours cleaning everything with wet tissues.

The good thing is most of the bugs are gone.


I saw another mouse in the house last night, in the same place. I chased it out the front door. Then, I decided to investigate as to how these mice are getting in. I got down on my hands and knees in the corner of the room where I saw the two mice, and lo and behold, there was a mouse whole!... in the wall!... in the supposedly concrete wall! It looked almost human-made, as if it was supposed to serve as some sort of drain, to let water out of the house, should the house flood, which is ridiculous, because water can flow out through the centimeter space under my front door. I don't know, but I doubt the mice burrowed through the concrete. Actually, you know what? I don't think any of these wall are concrete, actually. I'm beginning to think that they are brick walls covered with stucco. I saw a lot of brick factories on the train ride from Shen Yang to Tong Liao. There could be a small space between bricks, which was cosmetically covered by the stucco. Mice can burrow through stucco, no problem. Maybe that's how the hole got there. I looked into the hole and there was ANOTHER mouse about to enter my house, but it saw me and cowered back into the hole. I temporarily plugged the hole with tissue, but I know that is not going to hold. So, I asked the administration here if they wouldn't mind plugging the hole with cement. They're "on it", so to speak.


Got my internet problem fixed. Some repairman came today and fixed the problem. Bad line, I guess. He replaced the line. So, you all should be seeing me online a lot more often from now on.


In China, Teachers' Day is on September 10th. From the school all teachers have been given a big bag of flour, a big bottle of cooking oil, and a big box of high-grade Inner-Mongolian milk (the only kind I'll let my son drink). The oil and milk is a welcome surprise, but I have no idea what I'm going to do with all the flour. One of co-workers suggested I make "dumplings", which I call "won tons", and Koreans call "mahn-doo". I have no idea what the Chinese call them. My Chinese vocabulary is very limited, as I mentioned in my last letter.

What the Chinese are calling "Mid Autumn Festival" (and which the Koreans call "Harvest Moon" Festival, on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the Lunar calendar is NOT a national holiday here. They don't take a single day off! However, From October first, the Chinese get three days off because of Foundation Day, i.e., the foundation of the People's Republic of China. I believe that our school is taking a whole week off, because it coincides with the 40th anniversary of the school.)

*****Thor's Day, September 11, 2003*****


Yesterday was teachers' day in China. It was like Christmas for me. A good quarter of my classes gave me gifts. Each class pooled money together to buy me a gift. It was nice... really nice. Some of the administration and some English teachers took me out to lunch at a Korean restaurant (the same one I was taken to on my first day in Tong Liao). I got so drunk. Luckily, I was given the rest of the day off. I went home, threw up and slept for four hours. Then, I had to go pick up Taijing.


Today is the 15th day of the 8th month of the Chinese Lunar calendar. It is called "Mid Autumn Festival" Day. It is NOT a national holiday (i.e. day off), but I'm sure there will be festivities this evening. Also, it is traditional to eat "moon cakes". They are made of unleavened flour, with a sweet paste in the middle, which is made of a fruit indigenous to China. it's a little, spherical, bumpy, red fruit, supposedly from a tree (or bush) called the Hawthorne. It is tasty, but makes the mouth dry and so one needs a refreshing drink to go along with it. The students here are so nice (well, some of them are anyways). Students who aren't even MY students are coming up to me and giving me moon cakes for my son and me.


The problem with eating sunflower seeds is that you sometimes get one that tastes like something had crawled inside and died, which is probably exactly what happened. It tastes extremely bitter, and you have to either rinse your mouth out with some tasty liquid or eat several more sunflower seeds to get that bitter taste out of your mouth. The second problem, which happens a lot less frequently, but happens more frequently than I care to endure, is getting two bad seeds in a row. This is particularly disconcerting when one is trying to get the bad taste of the previous seed out of one's mouth. The third problem is (for me) a mental one... I cannot believe that anything that tastes so hideous could possibly good for one's health, and so, I begin to wonder what kind of health problems will occur as a result of eating bad sunflower seeds. Besides, with the lack of quality control, half of the seeds are these small, thin, shriveled up things that are a waste of time and energy to bother opening. I'm paying for those seeds as well by weight, so it's a waste of money as well. I don't think I should have to pay for such seeds. But, of course there's nothing that I can do about it. I think there should be two kinds of sunflower seeds on the market: the current kind, and a kind that is bereft of the shitty seeds. I'd gladly pay more for some quality control.

Oh! And there is a special problem with Inner Mongolian sunflower seeds: sometimes there is sand in the bloody seeds. I'm still trying to figure out how the sand got in there. It's one of those mysteries of life for which there is no answer and you have to either postulate or forget about it and live with it, OR stop eating sunflower seeds all together. I haven't decided which of the three options I will opt for.

There are three kinds of people in the world: (1) the ones that eat sunflower seeds and don't think about how the damned bugs (or sand) get(s) in and cause(s) that annoying bitter taste in their mouth, (2) the ones that postulate ad infinitum about how the bugs get in and form theories about how to avoid the bad seeds in the future, and (3) the ones that don't eat sunflower seeds.

And then... there am I. I don't really fit into any of the categories above. I'm in a category all my own. I try not to think about that cause of the bitter taste, but each time I eat one, I am reminded and annoyed a little more each time. So, I postulate and make theories and test my theories. Then, I give up because there really is no way to tell which ones are the good one and which ones are the bad ones from the outside, and I stop eating sunflower seeds. But, after a while, I start craving sunflower seeds and begin the whole cycle again.

The reason I mention this is because I am convinced that there is some profound analogy and/or lesson to be learned from all this, but I haven't figured it out yet. I guess one could say: "Beginning each day of one's life is like eating a sunflower seed; you never whether it's going to be a good one or a bad one." Or, perhaps one could say, "Friendship is like a sunflower seed; you never know the true colors of your friend until they are beaten and cracked open, left destitute of the hardened facade that we all put on to hide our true selves." Or, perhaps, "Life's situations are like sunflower seeds; the situation looks really really good on the outside (or from the start), but sometimes it offers bitter disappointment to those who choose to participate." Like when you see a picture of a meal in the menu, and when you order it, the actual meal doesn't quite look as good as the picture did (it usually looks bigger and tastier in the picture than it really is). Or like when you buy some really nice-looking shoes and they fall apart a week or a month after you buy them.


This evening when I came home from work, there was another mouse in the house, eating the broom. I have this broom made of grass with the seeds still attached. I think the mouse was eating the seeds. I checked the hole. It was still plugged with the tissue that I had previously stuffed in there. Now, there are four possibilities:

1. The mouse came in before I plugged the whole. I just didn't see it until today. And it has no way of getting out (except the centimeter space under the front door, but the mouse might not be aware of that way of getting out.

2. The mouse came in through the plugged hole by pushing the tissue out of the way and put the tissue back so that I wouldn't know it was in the house.

3. The mouse came in through the centimeter space under the front door.

4. There is another mouse hole in my house somewhere.

The mouse is kind of cute, actually. I tried to chase it out the front door, but lost track of it. Don't know where it went. It's probably still in the house somewhere. I think I'll put a trail of the shriveled up sunflower seeds leading to the centimeter space under the front door and outside as well. Maybe the mice don't mind the shitty sunflower seeds as much as I do. Maybe there is a good use for the the shitty sunflower seeds after all. Maybe they aren't a waste of money. I'll keep you posted on how my plan worked out.

Oops! I just realized something. My plan could backfire. The mice might follow the trail of sunflower seeds into my house. Oh well, I'll give it a try anyways. I mean I don't see the difference between one mouse and five mice in the house. Besides, it is probably getting too cold for the poor mice outside. We'll see what happens. Stay tuned for the latest news in the saga of Leon and the Mice.


One of the teachers at Taijing's kindergarten is Jo Seon Jok (Korean Chinese) and she speaks Korean. I saw her the other day and asked her if there was a Jo Seon (Korean) part of town. She said that there wasn't. She also said that there weren't very many living in Tong Liao. Oh well.


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