Shannon O’Grady, a friend from back in the blue-rimmed glasses and white barrette days of my youth, came to China to visit me (and ostensibly, China) for three weeks this summer. A lot happened, but the most interesting parts were the people we met, the songs we sang, the tea we drank, and of course the maggots we ate…
* Being in awe as 600 students in a crowded auditorium on a hot afternoon remained calm and attentive until class ended at 5pm on a Saturday. (Shannon, who teaches a public school in the South Bronx remarked: “We need to do an exchange program.”)
Getting an hour long massage and foot bath between the morning and afternoon teaching sessions on Saturday. I’m not sure why. But it was really nice. (Shannon: “We should have this at our school, in the Bronx.”)
Being chauffeured around in the headmaster’s car, treated to noodles and endless meals and dragon boat rides and tours of caves so large and craggy you were sure they were imported from an alien movie set, and being challenged to the drinking games by the headmaster’s assistant.
Drinking tea from a 300 year old tree while watching my friend’s high school headmaster smoke cigarettes on a three foot hookah.
Singing a duet of I Will Survive, on request, unrehearsed and a Capella, in front of 400 students.
Then singing solo Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from the Titanic at the opening ceremony of a yoga studio, on a stage on the street in front of two hundred people with confetti and foam flying at me. Note that this song is most decidedly be outside of my vocal range, and that it’s questionable whether I even have a vocal range. But nobody can say I didn’t try.
Then getting back on stage to perform yoga. I addition to singing, I am also rather particularly bad at yoga. (But how can you turn down your friend, tutor and host when she says “wouldn’t it be fun if we got the waiguoren to…”)
Playing tennis at a country club in the Yunnan town of Kaiyuan with a very cool young Indian yoga instructor name Vikram, who’s helping set up yoga clubs throughout China. Like in the states, yoga so far seems to be a yuppie / body-image sport (as opposed to tai-chi which is really only practiced by old people, and of course, me).
Eating maggots and bees. Yeah that’s right, that’s what I said. Hey, as a child I was moved by the warthog in the Lion King and the Akunamatata song. So I thought, when else will I ever have a table of Chinese high officials egging me on to eat insects? The conclusion: bees taste like fried crunch — very little flavor in themselves. The calamari of the insect world I suppose. But it might be good with some lemon butter? As for the maggots, they taste like you imagine maggots would taste. Yeah…
Hiking up a random mountain with my tutor and her family to find a monk in a cave, sitting by themselves with no one else around. Selling jade bracelets. And if ask the monk nicely, you can shake some chopsticks and have them read your fortune based on which one falls out. My friend’s little brother shook the chopsticks too hard and they ALL fell out. But come to think of it, that’s probably the way life works anyway…
Eating pomegranates and watching the clouds wander over the face of Canshan Mountain with Shannon in the evenings, from a third story balcony in the ancient-but-not-yet-pimped-out-city of Dali. The murky weather clings to the mountain, a little afraid to leave it. Lighting flashes wickedly across the rhythmically spaced ridges. Over the ancient Chinese curved rooftops though, the sky is bright baby blue, fluffed up with cotton ball clouds.
Earlier, we had gone to the famous three pagodas, and watched an imminent rainstorm slowly but steadily move across a flat fields of corn on a path which would no doubt intersect our own. But I told Shannon calmly, “Hang with me, Shannon, and not a drop of rain will fall on your head. I’m lucky like that.” And indeed, the storm curved like a boomerang away from us. After we had seen the pagodas, and were heading along the deserted mile long road home, the storm came back trailing us like a swarm of bees. We just duck under the veranda of our hotel and not one minute later, the storm pounds down all around us. “See,” I said to Shannon, “not one drop.” (She didn’t admit it, but I think she agrees that I have magical powers of good fortune.)
Visiting Jianshui, the (actually) small hometown of my tutor’s headmaster’s assistant. There’s a well here which provides half the town’s water. We saw a woman lead her blind companion, both with several gallons of water in buckets on both shoulders (1 gallon weights over 8 lbs!) up and down, up and down. Some people were pulling the water into carts, tanks, etc to go sell it elsewhere. Some where just grabbing a bucket for themselves, or drinking straight from the well.
Next to the well was a tofu factory where women’s fingers worked wickedly fast (they were paid by the piece) at packing slushy tofu into bundles to dry and sell — no lights except through the dusty window openings, no talking, no music, just the heaviest looks on their faces. The tofu from Jianshui is special, apparently because this water is special. (I declined to try a scoop from the well out of courtesy to my digestive tract, so I can’t support or deny that claim.)
I came to China to understand development, and so here was a clear example of something that “needed development.” Developed countries don’t use wells, or have blind people shuffle buckets of water uphill over and over again. They have pipes and faucets for clean water. So what would do you do here if you mayor? If you put in plumbing, will there be enough water for everyone? Probably not, and if not, then how do you distribute it? Do you charge now for the water? What happens to the water sellers? to the tofu factory, whose water had been free? to the hundreds of restaurants that sell dried tofu? to the thirsty folks who just wanted clean free potable water?
Meeting Jo Kent and Christine Chen, two fascinating Rice students in Shangri-La, who are making a documentary on Lijiang. Lijiang is the jade-bracelet city I talked about before, which has undergone more cosmetic surgery than Michael Jackson — and looks just about as fake. They are looking into the daily lives of people there — in the new part of the city as well as the old town. (I’ll let you know when they finish.)
Such cool travel buddies, even though we only met them in the relatively uninteresting city of Zhondian in Shangri-La. The main feature was a gorgeous and mysterious monastery, and the thirty foot prayer wheel which was impossible to turn by yourself; like the yak butter candles in the Tibetan monasteries it requires teamwork.
Flying over Shangri-La, watching the cloud encrusted mountains fade below you…
Meeting my tutor’s family. Almost every child of my generation — born 1978 or later — is an only child. Yet everyone has “mei mei”s (little sisters) or “jie jie” (big sisters) etc. Cousins are called by the same Chinese word as siblings. In Kaiyuan, where we were living with my tutor’s family, these collections of only children often come together. Neighbors rotate hosting neighbors for lunch; sisters alternate whose family cooks. I can’t generalize across China at all — but it was cool to see in this instance.
Bumping into this same French couple everywhere in Yunnan we went: First in the small hometown of my headmaster’s assistant, Jianshui. Then several hundred kilometers away, sitting next to us on the bus from Dali to Lijiang. And after an 8 km bike ride from Lijiang to a small town called Baisha. And again at lunch in Lijiang, sitting at the table next to us and at dinner, calling to us from a balcony.
Either they are working for the French secret police, or it’s a small little world, this travel-book yielding community. We all carry Lonely Planets or Let’s Gos or Rough Guides (have you ever thought how depressing all those titles are?), we all travel to the same hostels, take the same trains and buses, and wear the same iPods.
Chinese people (and people all over the world) see this homogeneity and think: “Americans! All so curious about other cultures, so open to new experiences and challenges, generally opposed to pre-emptive US military aggression, and of course, so well-travelled!”
I think that’s called “sampling bias.” Note that somewhere between two-thirds and four-fifths of Americans don’t even have a passport (according to this site). I had heard that most Congressmen don’t have passports either, which I believe — if you have stats on that, let me know!
Sleeping in. Every morning, Shannon would wrestle with the dawn to go run for an hour at increasingly high altitudes (she’s training for a marathon). She’d come back and wake me up. Ahh. The panda life is a good one. (By the way, did you hear about the man who bit a panda? The panda also bite the man, but still…)
Playing with MK’s dogs. My sister met the utterly unique Mary-Katherine Brooks in Tokyo a few years ago, and has kept touch with MK and her jet-setting set ever since. MK moved to Hong Kong a few years ago, where she has an amazing view and two helplessly lovable dogs. One has a collapsed trachea and is thus called Wheezy. The other, which was born without kneecaps on its rear two legs and therefore drags its backside around, is called Scooter. After an exhilarating and exhausting month of travel in Australia, I was happy to watch the Hong Kong typhoons come and go outside the window, play with those two affectionate gimpy things, and watch the O.C. Ah, the Panda life.
Having high tea at the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong with Rachel. My fellow ex-Lehman friend Rachel Lu spent the summer before her third year of law school interning at a firm here in Hong Kong. We went to the highly-touted high tea at the Ritz-Carlton, which was fantastic. Not only was it great to see Rachel again, but the food was awesome: Sushi! Dim sum! Cakes and cookies! It was like the best of the best of international munchies. The tea wasn’t bad either.
On the way, we saw a number of Filipino housekeepers sitting on the sidewalk, eating sunflower seeds and dinner, playing cards or just talking. Most are single women far from home, who live in the homes they work in. So their one day off, they go the only place they can: the sidewalk.
On the way, we saw a number of Filipino housekeepers sitting on the sidewalk, eating sunflower seeds and dinner, playing cards or just talking. Most are single women far from home, who live in the homes they work in. So their one day off, they go the only place they can: the sidewalk. *
Catching up on American pop culture — The O.C. in Hong Kong, Prison Break in Yunnan. I bought a DVD player this week and so started watching Lost (I don’t get the hubbub about it). Perhaps maybe I’ll even watch M*A*S*H or Happy Days or Seinfeld or Friends one of these days too, to feel like I’m a real American. Any movie suggestions you have for me to watch the complete the canon would be much appreciated too!
Visiting a government office in “action.” It was a mild afternoon in Kaiyuan. The electrical lights were off, and light streamed in through the dusty window of some administrative office. My tutor and I had come in to ask a question, and I watched the two women at the desk put down their origami. They were folding paper hats out of scrap paper. I suppose they were bored. They had no computers, just a desk in a room with two chairs.
Once you get out of the go-go hustle of Shanghai and other major cities, there seems to be a lot of down time in Chinese offices, in shops and at street jobs. People gathered around playing cards or mahjong, sitting around folding paper hats, and most often, just sitting. I suppose we have that too in the US — but we are good at hiding it thanks to the glory of Windows and email… For instance, perhaps you are reading this email at work?
Back to work,
An Ke Xin