Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Cyber Sharks Are Circling: Ways to Keep Your Kids Safe On-Line

Many people are surprised when they see our kids snorkeling with sharks or flying through the forest canopy on a zipline. “Isn’t that dangerous? Weren’t you worried about their safety?” they ask. The answer is no. These activities take place in a fairly controlled environment with a history of safety records. Plus, I am there looking over their shoulder making sure everything is alright. The sharks that do worry me are the cyber sharks. The tough kid at school being mean; the stranger approaching them with candy…with the advent of technology, these villains now enter our home. And with technology changing so rapidly, it’s hard to keep up. How do I keep them safe from something I don’t even fully understand…texting, sexting, cyber bullying, cyber predators? It’s all kilobytes to me.

The first key to keeping them safe on-line is to talk to them about what is appropriate to share. Don’t share more than a first name. Don’t tell an on-line friend where you live or what school you attend. But as much as we tell them, does it ever really sink in? I was watching a YouTube video made by a child from my kids’ school. She was walking around her house, filming her room, her pet hamster, giving a constant narration about her life. It all seemed innocent enough until she held up her report card. Not a big deal right? Just a kid venting about grades and school, but the report card envelope had the school logo and the child’s address on it. When I paused the video, I could see where this kid lives. I’m sure it never even dawned on her that she was sharing information, but there it was as clear as day. Directions for any predator in cyber space to this girl’s house. As much as we tell them not share information, there are ways the information is released without them even realizing it. So what can we do as parents? According to the University of Oklahoma Police Department, who released a brochure called “Keeping Kids Safe On-Line”, parents should:

- Know their child’s email username and password
- Keep the computer in a family area where supervision is easy
- Talk to the child about what is discussed and what sites they are visiting
- Tell the child to log off and tell a parent immediately if they feel at all uncomfortable with something happening on-line
- Give feedback to sites and service providers about inappropriate content or advertisements
- Warn your child about how easy it is to pretend to be someone you are not on the Internet and the dangers that go with that.
- Tell your child to inform you if anyone ever asks them to meet in person.
- Invest in a program that provides parental controls for on-line use.

So, beyond talking about it, which is always good, how else can we protect them from technology? Travel With Kids recently partnered with a company called MouseMail.com that offers filtering programs for e-mail, texting and social media. Parents and kids can work together to create an approved list of contacts and parents have the ability to check on their child’s activity. The filtering system also scans all the incoming e-mails, texts and social media posts for inappropriate content. If the system detects bullying, sexting or other inappropriate scenarios, an alert is sent to parents. Inappropriate emails are actually diverted to parents before they even reach their children. I am really impressed by what this company is doing to help parents keep kids safe on-line. The program allows kids to take advantage of technology while offering parents the tools to protect them from the dangers that lurk in the cyber sea.

As my kids get older and enter the on-line world, it gives me peace of mind knowing that there is someone who can stay on top of the rapidly changing technology and help me protect my kids from the cyber shark, so I can focus on enjoying my time snorkeling with the real ones who are far less dangerous in my opinion. For more information on this program, visit MouseMail.com

Monday, October 17, 2011

Green Onion and Frozen Pizza

Each dish starts out the same. A few cloves of garlic minced into thin ovals, limbs of ginger pureed into a thick pulp, and finely chopped stalks of green onion, sliced so that the flimsy green leaves coil out from the white stalk. Each is used in equal quantity at the base of the wok, to which is added a few hearty shakes of salt and black pepper, a dash of Asian five spice, and a dollop of spicy chili peppers.

We've been trying to cook together at least once a week, me and Yao Jie, this year's Shansi Visiting Scholar from China. We improvise a little with the ingredients, substituting what we can't get in America with its closest equivalents. The contents of each individual dish don't seem to matter much—strips of eggplant and squash, scrambled eggs and sweet onion, cubed pork and diced potatoes—the preparation is amazingly, eerily, consistent.

Sunday dinner at Shansi House (photo courtesy of Yao Jie).

In a bizarre twist of fate, Yao Jie also hails from Shanxi, the province home to my beloved Taigu, and is enamored by the same iconic Northern Chinese fare. When I lived in Taigu, I never thought I would miss it. So soon had the foreigners tired of the same five or six lei (types) of food that we eagerly sought out non-Chinese dishes at almost every opportunity. But amazingly, that plaintive disdain has quickly morphed into something more like desire. Food has become a metaphor for my unbridled nostalgia for China. The smells and tastes touch my taste buds in dreams, tantalizing me with the utterly fantastic notion of their feasibility, where the closest we get is the once-a-week meals we bastardize using ingredients from Stevenson and IGA.

I am constantly awed by her fascination about Oberlin. There is a certain wide-eyed focus to her gaze, a quiet calculation and analysis of the new world surrounding her, not too dissimilar, in fact, from my own. It’s been interesting, too, hearing what kinds of questions she has, and how even the most ordinary things require a lengthy explanation: “What function do the blue boxes on street corners serve?” “How do you choose the best cell phone service provider?” “What is the meaning of the sign in the Walmart parking lot that reads ‘Reserved Parking: Horse and Buggy Only?’”

I had nearly forgotten how much these small, seemingly insignificant queries dictated my own attitudes toward my first month in rural China. How even the most ordinary things were no longer easy—crossing the street, mailing a postcard—and how it forced me to pay special attention to the little details in my every day life. But pretty soon, everyone learns to adapt. Back in America, you get used to the wide sidewalks, the lack of honking, the monolingual road signs, the orderly grocery check-out counters. By now the joy of those small accomplishments has already fallen away, replaced by preoccupation with bigger, more pressing goals. But to the outside, it’s imperceptible: no one here, perhaps save for Yao Jie herself, understands that loss in quite the same way.

Yao Jie demonstrating Chinese paper cutting at this year's Culture Festival in Tappan Square (photo courtesy of Dale Preston).

I like to think I won’t have culture shock when I eventually return to visit Taigu, but I know that that won’t be the case. My reality is entrenched in my surroundings. I may no longer be shocked or amused by America, but I still yearn futilely for pieces of my past life. In one way, I’m paying it forward, helping to indoctrinate Yao Jie with the same welcoming and patience as those friends I made in Taigu provided for me, but in another, we’re both new to America, struggling with acclimating to this strange, different culture. At our last dinner Yao Jie refused cold water, opting instead to drink the boiled noodle water customarily paired with noodle-based dishes in the north. I paused for a second before I too dipped the ladle into the scalding pot and helped myself to a bowl.

*

I rarely cooked in China because from a pragmatist's point of view there was no ostensible need—restaurant food was laughably cheap and was much more efficient than cooking at home. Cooking always required what felt like a full day's preparation—shopping at the local supermarket in town for things like meat and tofu, the little mom-and-pop granary for rice and flour, and the farmer's market for things like eggs and vegetables. There was a two-three hour stretch of time at night devoted to the actual cooking—six pairs of hands in a crowded kitchenette taking turns by the electric hot plates, sharing cutting boards, and alternately washing and plating dishes. Then, the hour or two dedicated to eating, and finally the clean-up—scraping pans, storing leftovers, and wiping down tables.

Here there is almost none of that camaraderie. Most of my meals are cooked for one, and yet still, I find solace in that solitary act—returning home at noon, turning on the electric stove, letting the chop and sizzle of the saucepan add layers to Ira Glass's inflection. Then at night, the neat simplicity of reheated leftovers for dinner. It's not the co-op at Oberlin and it certainly isn't a Thursday night banquet in Taigu, but it suffices.

Two weeks ago I received an unlikely gift. Hand-delivered by Alexandra’s sister over seven thousand miles to Oberlin—what in Taigu could almost pass as a food staple unto itself—a package of Taigu bing. These particular bing—Chinese for “cookie,” “biscuit” or almost any breaded ration—came in a red plastic bag, the words “red date” emblazoned across the bottom to indicate the flavor. They are particular to Taigu and absolutely ubiquitous—rare is it to pass a store that doesn't carry them in large plastic crates, the stylized gold characters practically dancing across the label. But to receive them here, at a fancy restaurant in Oberlin, felt like something outer-worldly—my brain just couldn't process it.

I have been holding out on eating the last one, perhaps so long that it will end up spoiling in spite of my efforts, but I can't quite seem to let it go. This, a food staple that I bought with such utter regularity as to never question whether or not I'd have enough, a breakfast item I paired with a bowl of yogurt and a sliced banana each morning. For want of the more conventional Western pastries I once craved, these fluffy, sesame seed-studded cookies were all we had. And now, a single, solitary mouthful is all that remains.

It's a feeling that I find hard to explain. It's like being the sole proprietor of a contraband food ration in the army. Or, perhaps, like a foreign teacher laying claim to the only personal pizza in a rural Chinese town of 80,000. The pie that Gerald took back with him after each trip to Pizza Hut in the nearest big city of Taiyuan, an over four-hour journey in all. At each unveiling, there stood a small group swarming hungrily around the microwave or, more accurately, Gerald holed up in his own room alone, careful not to draw attention to the prodigious gift, like an archaeologist protecting a new discovery.

I can imagine him there, and then again after having returned back to the states—frozen pizza stocked in nearly every grocery store, Domino's delivery never more than 30 minutes away. But staring into that microwave, there was that one extraordinary moment—the collective hopes and dreams of seven foreigners pinned to that gleaming vessel of tomato and cheese, a time when any one of us would have traded the world for a bite. And now, as if in some distant universe, Gerald heats up a slice of pizza in his microwave back home in America, thinking to himself: remember when this used to be valuable.

 

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