Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Letter
What follows is my latest column for The Standard, based loosely on some recent holiday letters I've received and my past year or so in China. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
Yet another mass-addressed ("Dear Friends and Loved Ones") holiday missive from an old chum arrived recently recounting her personal and professional triumphs in 2004.
She's a 50something one-legged amputee – the result of a long ago motorcycle accident – who somehow found time last year to run in several charity marathons, including one in Russia, volunteer for the John Kerry campaign and spend an unpaid stint at a military veterans hospital aiding US soldiers who lost limbs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Did I mention that the special needs daughter she adopted, who was originally raised by a pack of mandrills, is now a renowned super model/particle physicist/playwright on the short list to be the first woman selected for a mission to Mars?
I threw it on the pile of similar letters and e-mail print outs I've received since December, including the one from a musician friend tapped to perform at the US presidential inauguration and one from a former porn star aquaintance who went straight, married a Mormon, became a real estate agent and in her first six months on the job racked up more than US$2.5 million in sales without shedding a sock.
I sighed and began to contemplate my accomplishments during the previous 365 days in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
While another aquaintance had successfully battled cancer, I had survived a bout of food poisoning courtesy of a sidewalk dim sum vendor as well as bravely triumphed over half a dozen hangovers.
Some correspondents had mentioned their selfless hours of volunteer work. I could only point to my ''English lessons" for underprivileged bar waitresses in Wan Chai and at Shenzhen's notorious V-Bar for which I had selflessly paid a heavy financial, physical and emotional price.
One pal's child had graduated with honors from a prestigious medical school and immediately turned down an offer from a renowned surgical center in favor of working with Doctors Without Borders. My offspring had graduated from a court-appointed counseling program and completed 72 hours of manditory community service following a college prank that involved – in no particular order – a, er, misunderstanding entailing unauthorized self-medication, a 255-pound Samoan transvestite and a crate of spontaineously purloined fruit bats at the Mexican border during spring break.
There was also the holiday letter from the 78-year-old family friend who had decided to take Finnish lessons "for fun" and had done so well that she had additionally broadened her linguistic horizons by translating Hamlet's soliloquy and the lyrics to Cole Porter's Brush Up Your Shakespeare into her newly aquired tongue "as a lark.'' Despite a year in China, I still could not count past six, though after repeated attempts I had mastered "beer," "yes," "no," "cold water," "thank you," "hello," and "bring me the bill."
Another US family wrote to say they had hosted their 16th physically handicapped foreign schoolchild in as many years for a 3-month homestay. For three seemingly endless days during Chinese New Year 2004 I had been hosted by a Shenzhen family for a cultural outreach homestay program in which I learned that Chinese families can be just as disfunctional as their American counterparts. It culminated with the alcoholic father still in his cups at an 8:30 am breakfast urgently declaiming something loudly in Chinese while brandishing an ancient (unloaded) Japanese army rifle in one hand and an entire cold, barbequed chicken complete with head and feet in the other while his daughter, wife and mother-in-law attempted to divert my attention with a book of family photos documenting a 1998 vacation in Perth.
Speaking of vacations, while others recounted environmentally correct green tours and high-end two week jaunts to exclusive European or tropical spas, I recalled only one Friday when I called in sick to work and then stole away for a long weekend to the ''Conghua Fairyland Make Wave Hot Springs Eden'' where my lodging reservations had mysteriously vanished. After that was finally resolved I found that the only thermal pools in operation weren't the enticingly named "Concubine's Spring" or the "Wine Pool", but the "Milk Pool" (cloudy and smelling like sour milk), "Coffee Pool" (like soaking in tepid Nescafe) and the puzzlingly named "Glossy Ganoderma Pool" which left me with a mysterious skin rash that did sport a certain glossy sheen until the topical antibiotic cream and repeated doses of something a Chinese friend recommended called Golden Monkey Snake Wine that promised to "moisturize skin, strengthen bones, tendons and muscles, treat hair loss and treat neurasthenia'' took hold.
After pondering this ignoble year and the possibility of a dignified reply to all my accomplished correspondents, I finally hit on a tactic.
Dear Friends and Loved Ones,
Hello from exotic China. It's been a very busy, productive year and I thought I'd share some of the high points. My work as a foreign correspondent has been fruitful though I've also found plenty of time to learn Chinese and do some after-hours volunteer English tutoring.
I've also established some remarkable relationships with a few of my students – some of whom are budding entertainment entrepreneurs – as well bonding with a Shenzhen family whose father and husband shares my interest in fine wines, cooking and Japanese antiques.
Though I have yet to visit popular tourist destinations such as Shanghai, Tibet or Beijing, I did discover a cozy, rustic hot springs and spa that is a proverbial "Eden" at which I spent some unforgettable days lolling in unusual mineral waters that did remarkable things for my skin.
I am also proud to report that my son has done well at college, particularly with some extracurricular civics and law seminars inspired by a visit to Mexico.
I'd like to close with a wish that 2005 – the Year of the Rooster -- brings you as much joy and inspiration as you have brought to me with your stimulating correspondence.
With love and best wishes,

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