This week Tina and I went for a full-body massage.  I'm not a huge fan of massages (unless Tina gives them ;-) but it was a nice time to get out of the house and spend some time together.  After the massage, Tina decided that she wanted to get the fire-cupping treatment.  If you don't know what that is, it's when the masseuse takes spherical glass cups, uses fire to burn away all of the oxygen inside, and then places it on your skin.  Since there is no oxygen in the cup, it sucks your skin into the cup, kind of like a continuous hicky.  They leave the cup on there for a few minutes and then remove it.  What remains are dark circles where the blood vessels broke.  This treatment is meant to remove the body's impurities, especially if one is retaining too much water or fire.  The darker the circle, the more you needed the treatment.

Tina gets this done every once in a while, and I think it really works, because the areas where she feels the most pain usually yield the darkest circles, and she feels much better afterward.  In my 5+ years in China I'd never tried it, so this time when she decided to get it, I thought why not me too.  It's better than sitting around waiting for her to finish, so we ordered a round of fire cups for both of us.  Here is the result.
I'll be carrying this unique pattern on my back for the next few weeks.  And as you can see, I really needed it, even though my body wasn't feeling bad at the time.  Some of the circles are so dark, they obscure the tattoo beneath it.  It was definitely uncomfortable though not unbearable, and my back still feels a bit tender a few days later.  Kind of like a sunburn.  At any rate, it's not often that I get to try something new so chalk this up to another China experience.  Now if I can just muster up the courage to try acupuncture....
My wife will give birth to our baby in late August, and it's been an interesting seven months so far.  A few minor scares here and there, but for the most part, it's been pretty smooth.  That's easy for me to say,though, since I'm not the one with constant back pain and swollen feet :-).  I've tried to be very sensitive and attentive to her and I can tell that I've made her feel very secure and even beautiful during this fragile time.

One thing that I am continually thankful for about my wife is her emotional balance.  Yeah she's a girl and all girls get emotional now and then, but compared to girls I've dated before, my wife has a very good handle on her emotions.  Of course, pregnancy brings the hormone onslaught and it's easy for an even-keeled woman to go all loopy, but I've fortunately been spared any tempestuous outbursts of mama-bear fury :-).

Yet one emotional battalion that takes a serious hit during pregnancy, especially for beauty-conscious Chinese girls, is confidence.  Of course I've always told my wife she's beautiful, and before she was pregnant, she believed it, but as the kilograms start to add up, now she needs much more reassurance, especially with my job as a university teacher surrounded by slender (and very hormonal) students.  In China, husband's infidelity is unfortunately a cultural fixture, and my wife tells me that several of her friend's husbands strayed while they were pregnant.  My wife doesn't expect that I would follow the same path, but at the same time, she's a girl, and girls' minds are a whirlwind of doubts and worries.  Actually, to be honest, my wife is still pretty freakin' hot compared to the other pregnant ladies waddling around, and any man who cheats on his wife while she's at her most vulnerable, such as during pregnancy, must be the most wretched scum alive.  But even still, I continually remind my wife that she's still beautiful and still the apple of my eye as I massage her swollen feet, and I know she believes me.

It's been a long time since I stepped off the plane in August 2005.  I was planning on just staying for a year, travel around, experience a new part of the world, then head back to start my "real life."  Now here I am, with a wife, house, and baby on the way (2 more months to go!).  It's actually been a pretty smooth 5 years, with a few bumps here and there but like anything in life, if you give it some effort, things usually turn out okay.

Of course I miss the States, my friends and family, etc.  So that's why I compiled this 5-year list.  I'm sure a lot of you can empathize :-).

Things I miss, in order of importance:
- Live music.  I was all about the rock concerts and underground shows, particularly during my college years.  I know music scenes exist around China but there is nada where I live now.  What I wouldn't give for a good circle pit and 150 dB....
- Sports.  I'm not really athletic but I enjoy the vibe of sports culture.  Though "rabid sports fanatics" could be filed under "Things I Don't Miss."
- Cool cars.  Who doesn't like cool cars of all shapes and sizes?  Apparently not Chinese people.
- Multiple ethnicities/skin tones/languages/food.  China is probably the least diverse place on earth per sq. km.

Things I Don't Miss, in order of importance:
- American arrogance.  The main reason I left America was the attitude... so many people self-absorbed, in love with their own opinions and the sound of their voice as they bellowed these opinions to anyone around; the eagerness to challenge others; to pick a fight, physical or verbal; looking for any excuse to flaunt one's individuality/uniqueness, no matter how trivial.  Americans take themselves way too seriously, and it usually has nothing to do with America itself.  They're so in love with their freedom that they need to continually reassure themselves by looking for challenges to their freedoms/rights, when in the end, no one gives a damn.
- Rabid sports fanatics.  You know what I'm talking about.
- Fat peoples' attitudes.  Nothing against fat people, but you can stuff your bitterness and complexes.
- Oversensitivity.  No one in America can call a duck a duck for fear of offending someone.  Don't be mean, just be real.

The truth is, I feel more American and more free in China than I did back in America.  And for this reason, I try to be mindful of this gift and not abuse my freedom here.  It's easy to exploit China, on multiple levels, but what kind of American would I be if I misused the thing that we Americans prize most?
This week, I've been encouraging students to stay away from overused words, such as "beautiful," "delicious," etc.  One word that is heard all too often is "cute."  Cute is an integral part of Chinese society, as well as many other East Asian countries.  There are cartoons everywhere, on refrigerators, public buses, and noodle packaging.  Girls try to find the balance between innocent and sexy, and the result could best be described as "cute."  Birthday cakes, picture frames, umbrellas... everywhere you look, there's something cute.

A large amount of my time is spent around students, who are of course immersed in the culture of "cute."  And this is all fine and good, but it gets a bit overwhelming at times. The other day, a male student was wearing a neon pink shirt and matching neon pink glasses.  In a bid to out-do the effeminate male Korean pop stars flooding the airwaves and magazines, China's Super Boy singing competition program has become a parade of the "cutest" (translation: cross-dressing) boys the country has to offer.  I see semi-pimped-out rice rockets buzzing down the road, sporting Japanese cartoon decals.  And while I certainly have no problem with cute girls, I constantly see middle-aged mothers prancing around the shopping malls wearing the same tu-tu inspired fashions that my students wear.  Granted, they usually have the figures to pull it off, but there's nothing wrong with dressing with a stylish yet mature sensibility.

Every culture is obsessed with youth, but I think China takes it to another level, where many people lack education or skills to set themselves apart from the rest of the masses, but youth and beauty are always in fashion.  My students tell me that they don't want to grow up, that they wish they could always remain boys and girls.  Maybe this culture of cute is a way to retain that youth, even though the mirror is telling you otherwise.  I dunno, maybe my Western mentality is too testosterone-driven, and I have come to appreciate "cuteness" more since living in China, but when I see billboards with cartoon policemen telling me not to drink and drive, I feel like I'm in kindergarten.

I confess: I love skulls.  Maybe it's too much heavy metal, maybe it's "The-Nightmare-Before-Christmas-ophilia" that has gripped countless millions.  Whatever the reason, nothing beats a skull for eye-catching appeal and creepiness.

As I mentioned on my previous blog, China doesn't do Death.  At all.  The morbid fascination that The West has with death does not exist here in China.  So naturally one would be confused to see skulls and crossbones everywhere on China's streets.

Now I'm not just talking about rebellious teenagers' punk-rock fashion.  I'm talking EVERYWHERE.  On fashionistas' scarves.  On old ladies' blouses.  On childrens' T-shirts.  On little doggie sweaters, for crying out loud.  Everywhere.
The variety is quite surprising as well.  Rarely will you see blatantly evil, fang-toothed, fiery demon skulls like the kind that we Westerners like to tattoo on ourselves and emblazon on our rock T-shirts and tricked-out lowriders.  The skulls one encounters in China (and the rest of East Asia, from what I've seen on TV) are rather benign and often cutesy skulls.

But they're still SKULLS, people.  Skulls come from dead people, and cutesy skulls come from dead CHILDREN.  Now I can understand if this was a culture enchanted by the gruesome and macabre, but this is China.  I just don't get it.

On a personal note, I think it's cool, actually.  I've got a hoodie with four separate skull designs, and my wife and I have matching skull T-shirts (now I know I've hated on this subject on other people's blogs but when skulls are involved, it's cool, so zip it).  I've always wanted to get a skull tattoo but that would go counter to the "nice guy with tattoos" image I try to maintain.  But a skull is just a skull, just a part of human anatomy. The fact is, death is not cool or fashionable, but it's a reality of life and shouldn't be ignored or feared.  The West is fascinated too much by it, and China is too petrified by it; the balance, like all things, is in the middle.

The last straw came yesterday when my wife and I were visiting a historic temple with one of my wife's friends.  She's a very typical Chinese girl who works in a local hospital, so I was a bit surprised when my wife told me that she has a tattoo.  I said, "Oh, really?" and my wife's friend said that she wanted to get it removed because Chinese men don't like girls with tattoos.  My wife lifted up her friend's shirt so I could see her lower back.  I was expecting a small rose or poorly-done angel, and my eyes nearly bugged out of my head when I saw a scowling skull glaring at me with flames the entire width of her back.  It was the last thing I expected to see on a girl like this, but it just reiterates the paradox I've been talking about.

Of course, I told my wife's friend that all guys like girls with tattoos, no matter what they say ;-P.
I’m not talking about economic soft power.  I’m talking about the power of grace and delicacy, something which is very well understood in Asia but is seemingly lost on most Westerners.  In the West, power is acquired by and equated with aggression, machismo, boldness, callousness, and often violence.  This kind of power could be termed “hard power,” and it’s very obvious and undeniable.

Yet the idea of “soft power” can be just as persuasive and even as devious as hard power, and as the name suggests, this is something that leans more to the female side of the spectrum.  You could call it “feminine wiles,” but that implies subversive intentions.  Soft power simply means to exert power and influence through softness rather than force.

Women in China are not hard, and women in China don’t want to be hard.  They don’t want to be weak, but they don’t want to influence others through outright aggression and force.  The combined elements of their small physical size, soft features and voice, social and cultural expectations, and China’s historical emphasis on grace and delicacy makes most Chinese women seek to be softer and more feminine in the traditional sense.

Now we Westerners hear the words “feminine,” “soft,” “delicate,” and we think “weak,” “submissive,” “easily manipulated.”  This is hardly the case.  Of course there are countless examples of Chinese girls who are manipulated and subservient to their men, but this is more often due to poor judgment, desperate circumstances and naïveté than innate weakness.  A woman who embodies softness and delicate beauty can wield tremendous power over men, but this is a power that men are more willing to submit to, because it compliments their manliness.  The fact of the matter is that most men don’t like a woman who is aggressive, loud, and coarse, because these are traditional male attributes, and as the Chinese say, a mountain cannot have two tigers.  A man does not prefer a manly woman, just as most women don’t want an effeminate man.  Yin doesn’t want another yin, it wants a yang.  Call it chauvinism, caveman gender politics, whatever; this is the way it is.

In China, and other Asian countries, women understand this.  They don’t want to compete with men to see who can be the most manly, and subsequently, the most powerful.  It is true that men are far more dominant in most Asian cultures, but I think this is due to economics and physical capabilities rather than inherent characteristics.  The reality is that Asian women actually do have a great deal of power in their homes and families, though this power is less overt and tangible, but no less real.  And as I said before, this is a kind of power that most men are willing to put up with, because it’s not in direct competition with them.  Let’s face it, men want to be powerful.  This is an essential male trait throughout the entire animal kingdom.  If there is a threat to that power, it must be confronted.  We men can’t help it, it’s in our DNA.

Of course I’m not suggesting that women should intentionally suppress any aggressive urges or assertive personality traits.  The world needs strong women.All I’m saying is that from what I’ve seen in China, men are men, women are women, and this relieves a lot of gender stress in daily life.  Of course this creates a whole new set of problems, but these are issues for each family to resolve on their own.  A man will resist a bitchy woman who disrespects him, but will gladly cater to a woman who expresses gratitude and appreciation for her manly man.  In my own experience, my wife is glad to be a delicate flower because she knows that I will cherish her gently and attentively.  She’s certainly not a pushover and she sets me straight when I need it, but I never feel that I have to tiptoe around the idea of her feminine identity because she sees her softness as something to be embraced and nurture rather than suppressed, and that makes me feel relaxed as a man and as a husband.

Now to all you guys out there using your hard power to manipulate and subjugate, and to all you ladies using your soft power to seduce and subvert, as the Chinese say, 去死.

Xena- a bit on the butch side, but she handled her business.