Tag Archives: China

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Human Trafficking vs. Human Homing Ping

Why do strange things happen to me when I am flying? I mean, of course, flying in an airplane, to which event I shall return momentarily, for otherwise, the only time I fly is when I am in my dreams and this blog is not to be about dreams, unless one were to regard the ping as a dream.

That ping is the internal homing device that I believe every one of us has. Not all can hear it, or rather, not all choose to hear it. But it is there. It is that place, whether merely idealized and dreamlike or (likely also idealized and) real, where we feel that “home” is. We long for home, and our literature, art and culture reflects this longing.

Not every literary work, of course, does so. Some are steamy romance novels that really don’t reveal the homing ping at all—or do they? Could, even in a salacious adulterous affair, there not be a desire for a kind of fulfillment that is, though a perversion of the real thing, found in perfect love? And that love, or at least the nurturing, accepting and forgiving aspects of it, are reflected in true romance, true love, and true family that results from true love. But I wax St. Valentinian too far in advance of February 14.

That ping, as I was saying, most often harks back to one’s childhood, and I was thinking of it because over the weekend I had been in Wilkes-Barre, where I was born, and New Hope, where I grew up and I heard that ping very distinctly, standing in front of the old homestead, visiting my mother’s and grandparents’ gravesites. If you are among the lucky, you have had something like a family and a home and you innately know that home and family are what you craved then and what you ultimately crave, more than the ephemeral delights that the world tells you are important. You know that living in the here and now, living for the moment, will not satisfy. You know that there is home, somewhere, possibly a physical place (a town, for example) or possibly an ideal setting (the notion of a fireplace and a family, or even the heavenly realm) that beckons you. That is the ping. And this is why, of course, Christmas is a popular holiday, even among those who do not believe that there was a baby born in Bethlehem or that that baby grew up to teach profoundly and heal defiantly.

But that aside, as now having established, I hope, in but a very few paragraphs, that there is such a thing as the ping, I must speak about flying, or more specifically the last flight I was on just a few days ago when an aggressive, middle-aged, physically fit man carrying an opened laptop computer climbed over me. Before I could extricate myself from my safety belt, he said, “That’s my seat. Do you mind?”

“Of course not,” I said, wiggling out of his way.

Not a word was exchanged until a young woman sat between us. I told her that I was a writer; she was mildly interested but, being a businesswoman, admitted that she doesn’t read much but prefers podcasts. I had nothing to offer her, as I have no podcasts. I’m not sure how to make one, though I, too, have listened to them (in my case, in non-English languages, as they are an excellent way to hone one’s language skills). I turned to my writing, she to a conversation with the man who had climbed over me, also a businessman, as I could not but fail to overhear.

Now I paid little attention to their conversation, as I was writing, something I much like to do when I am travelling. But it was hard not to overhear or to believe I must have heard wrong when my climbing fellow traveler said to the young woman, “Well, you know, kids make those things” (referring, I think to an article of clothing that he was responsible for importing for his company), “but I don’t have a big problem with that. I’m not sure what’s so wrong with an eight-year-old working in a factory in China.”

“Me neither,” she responded. “I had …”

“Kids that age should be playing or going to school,” I interrupted, barely able to restrain myself. “It is wrong for a little kid to have to work forty plus hours per week in a factory.”

“That’s your cultural expectation,” he responded curtly. “You believe that because in the culture you were raised in, kids playing or learning was the norm. But there, work is often a part of their schooling. Look, it’s a well-known fact that in other cultures there are other norms, other rights and other wrongs.”

boy with trash“No, I said. There are not. Those kids have no future in such an environment. They are often exposed to harsh chemicals that dramatically shorten their lives …”

He interrupted, “Many are helping to support their families. Suppose one of them had a sick parent or something.” It struck me odd that if he felt he had such an ironclad argument that he would, before he could make his case about the rule immediately divert to what would obviously be an exception to it.

“I started working when I was twelve,” piped in the young businesswoman, no doubt finishing her previous thought. “It didn’t do me any harm.”

“Working part-time after school and working full-time in a sweatshop (neither of them seemed familiar with that term or the history that is incumbent upon it) are two different things. I worked on a farm when I was a kid, but it’s not the same as an unsavory factory situation where children can get ill from the working conditions and don’t have a proper childhood.”

“There you go again,” quoth he, “imposing your cultural expectations. Besides, if they get sick and die, just ‘Get another thousand of them.’ That’s what a friend of mine says. There are plenty of people in China.”

Muckraker photo
Cover of 1901 magazine which published articles by muckrakers.

“Not to be a muckraker, but have you ever visited these factories?”

He paused only slightly, seemingly thinking that I had dubbed myself something other (perhaps a more than merely a four-letter word) than a muckraker, as he was clearly not familiar with that term, either. Then he said, “No, and I don’t need to,” though surely with no malice aforethought for that would require forethought, of which he had none. “My culture is not theirs, my values are not theirs. I can’t impose my values on their culture.”

I would point out here that his response sounds more sophisticated than it is. Though it masquerades as a radical form of enlightened cultural tolerance, it is actually nothing more than a rabid form of moral relativism that is in bed with big business and market-driven morality.

“Well, I have visited them,” I said. “There, children only worked; they didn’t laugh or smile or goof around. They were not able to play like normal children. They concentrated merely on the task at hand and nothing else. And I was told by my guide that they often get sick, even die, especially when exposed to chemicals or find themselves in bad working environments.”child in sweatshop“Then you just ‘Get another thousand’,” was the not-too-swift man’s swift reply.

Now at this point, had we not been in an airplane and had the year been 1985 or earlier, I think I just might have reached clear over the woman between us and smacked him full fist. But nowadays you get sued for that kind of thing, sadly, and probably arrested once the plane touches down. No, I did not take a poke at him. I was merely incredulous: this fellow was actually advocating a kind of human trafficking, or at least abuse of children, and he was proud of it. He was in favor of a type of slavery or serfdom. He would deny those children any sense of the ping one could possibly feel about home that develops (or at least should be given the chance to develop) during one’s childhood. In short, he would, in the name of business, take away children’s very childhood.

As I sat there the rest of the flight, it was impossible for me to write. Instead, I thought about those children, their lives, and said a prayer for them. I hoped things were better now, in China, than when I was there some twenty years ago; yet I feared they may not be better. Thus did I ponder, trying not to glance over at this ethical ne’er-do-well, reflecting on what I was feeling, emotions ranging from sadness to indignation to flat-out wrath.

My homing ping was stronger now than it had been when I got on the plane that morning. Though I was coming from home, I felt the call to go home, not only for myself but for my friends, the Chinese children whom I knew might never have time to feel it for themselves. It’s funny how having a forty hour or more work week in a factory might just take the sense of childhood out of someone, suppressing the ping, maybe even muffling it forever.

Just then another type of ping went off in the aircraft. It was time to fasten our seatbelts and prepare for landing. As we touched down, I hoped that those Chinese children could, at least, dream. Could they dream, perhaps, that they were flying?

And then, as we stood up to disembark, I punched the bastard.

Fight club passNo, I’m kidding. Rather, I thought that, were he ever somehow miraculously to stumble upon this blog, he might just need a recipe, one handed down, if only imperfectly, in the Jakes’ family. Nevertheless I would here offer it to him, and myself, and all of us.

Human Being Recipe child working hands


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: The Fairy Wall and Parmesan

There is a wall running along the side of a small swath of land that is the yard of the property once known as the Lizzie Ann, a countryside residence in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, quite near New Hope. That house was once a dormitory of the Holmquist School for Girls. There dwelt a young Pearl S. Buckpearlbuck long before she would become a great writer.* There, years later, dwelt another fine writer, Elaine Jakes, in that selfsame house. Yet neither Elaine Jakes nor Pearl Buck (then Pearl Sydenstricker) knew when they were living in this humble abode that they would be such writers. Pearl was quite young, apparently living there (Elaine always attested) for a short time while her parents were on furlough from their mission in Chinkiang. (That brief stay, Elaine maintained, would compel Pearl eventually to return to Bucks County to buy Green Hills Farm, where she is now buried).

The young Pearl no doubt used her time there to reflect upon the bulk of her childhood, lived as it had been hitherto and would soon be again in China. Elaine, a middle-aged woman, used a pen to reflect in her personal notebooks on her life, there divulging wistful thoughts, fond memories, and not a few regrets. She had, as you may know from The Curious Autobiography, her own Chinese period. But she did not have the kind of family that her parents had enjoyed. Nor had she had the family that her sister did, nor that of Pearl Sydenstricker Buck. Rather, Elaine lived alone; she dwelt with books as her principal companions. Books were voices of the past, a past not her own, but no less important for it, creators of memory that she never had. They were, as they are for any good reader, best friends.

Hotel du Village signFor that reason she was never lonely. Another reason that she was not lonely were the fairies that lived in that wall, the yard’s far wall that separates the Lizzie Ann from the Solebury School’s lower campus, which would later be rechristened the Hotel du Village—a title I always found just a bit off, as there is no village (as pronounced in French or English) in the immediate vicinity of that complex structure. It had been, after all, the women’s campus of the Solebury School, a direct descendant of the Holmquist School for Girls. Today it is an exquisite, even sumptuous, bed and breakfast, still separated from what was the Lizzie Ann by the fairy wall.

stone wallThat wall was not significant for its natural luster, for it had none, unless one were to value its rustic feel and the rusticity of its rusticated concrete patches, for it was a crudely made concrete wall, with smoothed-out swatches of cement alternating quixotically with small patches of jagged stone, sometimes bedecked with moss, other times hidden behind weed-like wildflowers that grew out of cracks in the wall. No, this was by no means a wall of Nehemiah, no rebuild per se, yet it did show evidence of repair. Most significant were its cracks, which gave it some sense of venerable authority, if nothing else, while at the same time providing a place where fairies abode, who only emerged about dusk—and quite gingerly at that.

LucyHJonesTrunkIt is well known that the elfin hob of the Lizzie Ann had some commerce with these fairies, though he was loath to admit as much. He was, the reader will recall, a stowaway in the black trunk that came from the old country, from Wales, specifically from Llanelli (not at all pronounced the way it looks), or rather from a tiny suburb of Llanelli called Llwynhendy (also not pronounced the way it looks). That curious state of affairs and hitherto unseen development in human/Hobian relations has been well documented, both in previous iterations of this blog and in The Curious Autobiography proper. Yet the fairies were never mentioned there, in part because their actual provenance was, and remains, entirely unknown. There is a rumor that they first came from Piccadilly (but that would make them English), which in any case seems a mere onomatopoeia based on the ridiculousness of the word Piccadilly itself.

Clearly the fairies are not domestic. I say this because they normally took coins, with preference given to British pence or Canadian cents, from a coin dish—for Elaine kept such a dish—in the living room of the Lizzie Ann or from the tips of the less generous tippers at the Hotel du Village. These coins they would place, with great caution and entirely surreptitiously, in the zig-zagging wall cracks. Some say these were the doors of the fairies’ houses, but this is mere speculation, and ill-informed at that. Rather, I am certain that this numismatic collocation was an altruistic act, however one may parse it, as the coins were obviously placed there for the children who played in the yard to find. I shall in a future blog enlarge upon who these children were and precisely what their connection to Elaine Jakes was. Suffice it to say they had little money of their own, as they came from a family of modest means. Even the youngest of them, a little girl who once wanted to stay four years old forever, still remembers. The fairies knew about the children’s less than affluent circumstances and thus took—some might say “stole”—these coins for the children’s delight in the finding, mirabile inuentu puerili.

That fairies commit such acts should come as no surprise. Even the entirely undocumented and frankly ridiculous myth of the “tooth fairy” demonstrates that fairies are amply capable of transporting coins great distances. And, as obviously even a mythical creature such as the tooth fairy has no money of her own, she would have to have procured said income by clandestine, dubious means. Normally she would filch it from the parents of the child whose tooth was lost, of course, which is why parents are often believed to be the actual givers of money for teeth.

Gwilym the elfin hob
Gwilym the elfin hob

But I wax mythological. Let me return to the wall fairies of the Lizzie Ann, beings far more valid than the so-called tooth fairy. Those of the wall, while they may have been irritated from time to time by Gwilym the household hob—no doubt, if they were taking money from the change bowl—must have been in cahoots with him for this ultimately altruistic business, as I doubt he would have tolerated their frequent entrance into the Lizzie Ann unless he were in on the project. He did, it is now known, have a soft spot for children. And for cheese. And thus, undoubtedly, the fairies softened up the otherwise occasionally crusty andparmesan not infrequently sarcastic Gwilym with rather hard Parmesan cheese, the block version of which was his favorite non-Welsh cheese; he was otherwise always de gustibus loyal to the domestic Gymreig Hên Sîr—non disputandum.

His Parmesan leanings, however, were in evidence from the fact that he would regularly purloin that Italian cheese when it was left out, which it was from time to time, on the cheeseplate, whose covering bore the features of a face that had for generations frightened all the small children in the family. When that cover was in place, Gwilym had no chance to get to the cheese—no chance unless the fairies (obviously working as a team) would en masse lift the cheeseplate’s ponderous and stunning lid, while other fairies pulled out a giant glob of Parma’s best contribution to the world. Indeed, I’ve rarely had a better moment than eating Parmagiano in Parma, the city in which I was enjoying the cheese at Tiffany di Gianpaolo Conciatori just two weeks ago, so I understand Gwilym’s penchant, or rather his weakness, too well. At this point, I must publicly admit that I believe there may also be a dairy fairy, as Paestum’s mozzarella di bufala is a strong competitor to Parma’s Parmagiano. (If ever you are in Paestum, be sure to eat some at Nino and Sandro’s Ristorante del Hotel Poseidonia Mare, near the beach; for pizza in Paestum, try the world’s best da Pasquale at the Taverna del Parco on the aptly named Via Nettuno, no. 45).

Pasquale, owner of Taverna del Parco and best pizza chef in Italy
Pasquale, owner of Taverna del Parco and best pizza chef in Italy
View from Ristorante Taverna del Parco
View from Ristorante Taverna del Parco

But I laud the fairies, not simply for their industry but their desire to provide poor children with coins, which no doubt they in turn merely used to buy candy or some other ephemeral treat. Yet there is the important point. The fairies found purpose in giving, both giving Gwilym delight and, more importantly, the same to the children. They held a common goal of serving and working as a team, working together for a greater end. And there just might be something for us people, to learn from these fairies, whatever their provenance.

So raise a glass to those flitting sprites the next time you partake of wine and cheese, or walk beside a garden wall, or think of China or Pearl S. Buck, or think that you may have encountered an elfin hob, or can’t find the right change, or any change, in your change bowl, or, at the very least, when you brush your teeth. And forever keep in your heart the lesson of the fairies, whether they come from Llanelli, Llwynhendy, or Picadilly. Such a silly sounding word.

*I have no proof Pearl S. Buck lived in the Lizzie Ann; nevertheless, this is something Elaine consistently maintained.