Friday, December 5, 2008

Formula Pop with Predictable Melody: Koreans in Wudaokou, Sketches

Taxi driver:
Are you Korean?...Oh, Korean-American! Interesting. No, no, I just noticed it from the small accent you have. Not like most Koreans, but interesting. I pull around a lot of Korean kids in this neighborhood. I know, they're rather loud, aren't they?... Oh, I didn't realize Koreans took the bus around here. Do you like taking the bus in Beijing? Hey, I hope you don't mind me saying this, saying you're America and all, but I think the Korean students here - you know why they aren't welcomed by the Chinese here? --- their suzhi (素质) is just so low. All they do is skip class during the day, drink during the night, fool around with boy or girlfriends, throw up in my car... actually, I can't really tell Koreans apart from Chinese people, but I know when I have a Korean in my car -- they're just so damn loud, all drunk, you know what I'm saying? Suzhi is just so low in those kids - they come to China and go back to Korea without having studied our language well at all, all they do is hun rizi, loaf through their days. Their taking Wudaokou down into a drain. Oh, here's your stop. 18 kuai. I hope you didn't mind listening.

IUP classmate, while eating lunch:
I live in Huaqing Jiayuan. Lots of Koreans there. It's kind of hard to study when there are drunk Koreans throwing and falling outside my apartment door. I know Koreans are the Irish of Asia, but it's awfully annoying to hear Korean swear words (they yell the same words, and I don't have to study Korean to know that some dude is calling his ex-girlfriend a bitch) while trying to memorize characters. That was my initial impression - really drunk ethnicity. Then, my Chinese friend told me that most of the Koreans in China, in Wudaokou at least, are the students who couldn't get into college or succeed according to their parents' standards in South Korea, but too poor to study abroad in the States. The average joe student who drowns his parents' ambitions in beer and soju - I look at the drunk kid at my doorsteps, and he seems to fits the demographic.

Musicology student at the Beijing Conservatory of Music, over a beer:
I'll try to be as detached about this. No, I don't really have a clear opinion about Koreans - you don't even count to me as Korean because you're too American. I'm just saying you don't think like the typical Korean boy that I've met in China. I'll just talk about Koreans from a cultural perspective - I believe that most Chinese people are angry at Koreans for stealing bits of its culture. For example, the Duanwu festival is part of Chinese culture, but Koreans are now celebrating like it originated from the Korean peninsula. Every country is trying to protect its traditions and customs, but I think South Korea went too far by celebrating Duanwu (Festival). That's not to say I complete hate Koreans - it's like how I hate the Japanese government for its actions half a century ago, but not its people. I think that generally, Koreans seem to fit mold of beauty that appeals to more people around the world. I mean, think about it - why do you think Korean dramas are seen around the world more than Chinese and Japanese dramas? As much as you argue about how the acting quality is among the countries, I think it still comes down to looks.

Korean-Chinese (Chaoxian, 朝鲜族) hairstylist:
Most of my friends are Chaoxian - I don't hang without the actual Koreans. Our cultural backgrounds are just too different for any meaningful conversation. They do come in for haircuts every other week - it's much cheaper to get your hair cut in China than in Korea. Your hair is perfect for perming. 300 yuan. Come on, just try it. The latest Korean styles have to involve perming.

Note: The opinions in this blog do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the author. The author did not get a perm.

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Sunday, November 30, 2008

Charlie Brown Theme Song: Post Thanksgiving

It is cold in Beijing.
Well, it's been cold for the past couple of weeks. As soon as I got off the train from Shanghai, I saw everyone trekking in large overcoats and fleeces. I bought a new jacket and some new clothes to replace some of the shirts and pants that I brought from home. China's laundry machines, though good at cleaning, are horrible at preserving clothes.
This module at IUP, I am studying classical Chinese. I'm glad that I went to Hangzhou and Suzhou - classical poets refer to specific objects and scenes that can only be found in southern China. My teacher is having me memorize every lesson character for character. I feel like I'm back in Elementary Chinese when I prepare my classical Chinese lessons, but without the agony of encoding grammar patterns or the pressure of preparing for different classes. I am also studying from a book designed by IUP called Academic Topics. It is basically a collection of speeches by professors from various professional fields. We are learning to speak more like the writers themselves. In a nutshell, we have to prepare the lessons as if we are experts on the topic at hand.

I really enjoy the course so far - the topics are much more engaging than those of previous books, and the vocabulary is much more useful.
Yesterday, IUP hosted a student-alumni mixer event at the Element Fresh restaurant bar in Sanlitun. Unfortunately, I felt sick and nauseous throughout the mixer and didn't really get to speak to many of the alumni. Director Laughlin didn't feel great as well - in fact, a lot of people were feeling aches and cramps. I need to go to the hospital and get that flu vaccine.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Autumn Leaves sung at Presto: The last nine weeks

November 8th ~ 16th
After the final exams of the first module, I headed south to Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai. I do not dare to recap all my experiences, I think the reader will read to death about temples and gardens.
Hangzhou's West Lake was a nice change of scenery from the gloomy block buildings of Beijing. I rented an orange tourist bike and biked all around the stone bridges and gardens surrounding the water. It reminded me of home - the blue skies, fair wind, open roads reminiscent of Main Street. North of West Lake, I visited the Yue Fei Mausoleum, erected for one of China's greatest patriots. His grave is a huge mound like those of deceased Ming dynasty emperors. Across from his grave were the statues of Qin Hui and his wife stripped naked, kneeling as if begging for forgiveness. Yue Fei was a general for the Southern Song dynasty that could have potentially united China a very long time ago, but because of Qin Hui's desire for wealth and power, he was executed with no reason given (莫须有). History punishes and condemns anyone like Qin Hui, "traitors" to the country, or 卖国贼. Yue Fei was such an important patriot that the Chinese government requires that students must read at least one book about Yue Fei and study his poem Man Jiang Hong (满江红).
Suzhou, in a nutshell, is a canal town filled with gardens. Frankly, I only enjoyed the city museum designed by the architect I. M. Pei, whose wealthy family once owned the Lion Stone Forest here. Besides that, I found the city to be rather cramped and dirty. Perhaps the weather or the large number of tourists was too much of a contrast after visiting Hangzhou. The gardens make Suzhou famous. Mirrors are hung at specific locations around the garden to give the illusion that the garden spills out into other chambers. In ancient times, poets sat on benches among shrubbery and pagodas, musing nature and society.
Shanghai is a mixed bag. Skyscrapers and three story cement remnants from the sixties and seventies stand side by side, expats roam the streets like locals while Chinese tourists take pictures madly like foreigners, one-legged or extraordinarily crippled beggars open taxi doors while shaking coin cups in the faces of passengers donning the latest fashion from Louis Vuitton and Dior. I stayed in a cozy little hostel behind the Tomorrow Square, a skyscraper that mixes the design of tesla coils and buildings from the Jetsons. Shanghai is an easier city to walk and explore than Beijing. From my hostel, I walked all over the French Concession, Nanjing Donglu, the Bund, the Old Town and Pudong. During the day I experienced street food in the coiling alleyways of Old Town, while during the evening I sampled homemade cocktails in Lounge 18 on the Bund. Though I love Shanghai as a city, it feels anti-foreign. Sure, expats work in the companies in the special economic zone and live in corporate apartments that look over the city, but the locals keep to themselves, yelling in blurs of Shanghainese. I know that the city government is working furiously to prepare for the World Expo in 2010 - in the central People's Square subway terminal, they even have a huge green digital clock reminiscent of those posted all over Beijing counting down to the Expo day. Government officials hope that by 2010, the city population will be "5% foreign." Only then is Shanghai "a true international city." I wonder if the Shanghainese want that.
October 31st
Speech day. At IUP, we have to prepare speeches on the sixth week. The following is a speech about globalization (全球化), discussing how to globalize oneself in a globalizing world.
虽然我们经常用全球化这个词,但它给社会带来的莫大的影响并非人人都清楚。全球化的发展意味着人类社会将被重新构建。有句歌词说得好:“这世界变得越来越小。”随着传媒技术的高速发展,互联网以惊人的速度遍布整个世界,经济全球化日益现实。网络不声不响地进入了每个城市,想在如果没有它人们似乎无法生活下去。在时下的世界里,可口可乐和麦当劳的广告铺天盖地。在每个城市的大街小巷都可以听到英文。虽然大家似乎对全球化所带来的物质享受感到欣喜,但还有一些为传统文化的未来感到忧愁,尖锐地批评它所带来的不良的影响。所以,各个国家也在尽量保护其传统文化遗产。为了消除传统和现代建筑的冲突,建筑师在千方百计地设计一些融合这两种建筑的特色的高楼大厦。为了让这一代的年轻人了解过去的习惯,各市政协会举办特殊节庆活动来让大家亲身体验不同的文化。有的城市甚至为了所谓的“保护”抵制外国文化融入人民的生活,生怕全球化使我们丧失个性。 “全球化我不怕,可怕的是找不回自己。”我们似乎把这句口头禅作为了一种生活方式。但何必如此呢?我想,越来越多的人在国际商店购物或者喝星巴克咖啡反映出了大家都迎接全球化的态势。为何我们只能在所谓的“文化”中找回自己,而甘于在全球化的生活中迷失呢?在我们的现代汉语词典里,文化的意思是“人类在社会历史发展过程中所创造的物质财富和精神财富的总合。”换句话说,文化是一种形式,可以是多种多样的,不只是我们想保留下来的遗产。文化本无国界之分,只能在缺乏创造力的人们的脑海中受到了限制。全球化也并不是一种新的现象。虽然这个词直到1962年才出现,但事实上,原始人类的迁徙和繁衍过程完全可以被视为早期的全球化。大约五万年前,我们的原始祖先最先出现在非洲东部,他们慢慢分散到包括南北美在内的世界各个角落。那时候,由于人类交通技术有限的缘故,全球化发展得比较慢,但现在已经可以用先进的技术以迅雷不及掩耳之势改造世界了。我们“找不回自己”的恐惧的根源也便在这儿:我们没有时间习惯千变万化的社会。所以,一个星巴克牌子出现在故宫,我们不由得感到突兀。 我认为文化中的精神财富比人类更易于全球化。我们在美国的华尔街上可以用中国的红砖绿瓦建成高楼大厦。许多生意人可能会吃惊,但我却不然。只要我们有足够的资源,我们可以把任何东西从一个地方输送到另一个地方,可是人的思想却难以改变。当我们跟不同文化背景的人聊天的时候,我们会不会乐意接受并使用对方的思维方式?我承认我不会——我看,老师和同学们也都深有同感。我想问:我能否把自己全球化?很多社会学家已经预测,在全球化的影响下,各个国家的文化势必会融合成一种文化。我们所保留的历史遗产无非是一种日记而已,让我们回忆或者学习人类的精神和奇妙之处。 王国维在他写的《人间词话》说每个学者得“必经过三种之境界。”旨在让每个人系统地全球化,我想出了一些境界。其一,“对他客观,对他宽容。”“他”是指不同的文化。在我们从小形成的对世界的成见的阴影下,我们不可能理智地对待某一现象。只有我们以客观的态度来面对世界才能变得宽容。其二,“追他而迷,为他而创”我们不能只当一个旁观者,我们也得亲身经历文化才能理解。当我们理解的时候,我们也可以创新,为文化做出些贡献。其三,“纵观颜色千百度,蓦然回首,原色犹在,独形异矣。”在我看来,文化不是为一个群体所拥有的,而是人类共享的。即使文化是人的精神的表现,但也得承认不同的群体会因生活环境不同而使用不同的方法来创造文化。如果我们将来在故宫或者在其他的名胜古迹和古典园林里看到洋快餐或者现代购物中心,我们不用觉得突兀,其实我们是少见多怪。当我们看惯了必胜客挨着一家传统茶馆的时候,我们看到的是文化的现代形式,一种文化,一种颜色。 文化和全球化不是不容互相的,是息息相关的。当我们觉得两种文化存在时,两种文化就存在。但我们习惯了文化的融合,那就是一种文化。我们的任务就是达到只看到“原色”的境界。如果你会看原色,我会向你多多指教。
October 29th
Outside the main gate of my apartment, an old man sits, passing time by looking at passersby and taking care of his two white dogs that get dirty in the grass easily. One of the dogs likes to smell my pants and lick my index finger - the other bitch just nips and barks at the former dog to get away from me. The old man is in his 80s, wearing a simple V-neck with worn black dress pants and vest, throwing on a light blazer for the wind - I just call him "老爷," or grandfather. I occasionally talk with him, trying to discuss some of the colloquial phrases I've learned. The man can't write characters, but he knows so much about Confucius and Chinese history from a working man's perspective. He doesn't like to play Chinese chess or poker with the men around the apartment corner - he just smokes the day away, steadily going through a pack of cigarettes as he watches the willow trees. The weather is getting cold these days, and he spents more time couped in his room, like the pigeons and sparrows that he shelters outside his window.
October 25th
I feel like I've hit a critical point in learning Chinese. Synonyms are bumping into each other, sentences are getting more complex and the line between formal and colloquial Chinese is getting blurred. I find myself thinking unconsciously about the fine differences between two words with the same meaning but different characters. My ideas and arguments are understood by my teachers and friends with more ease and less hiccups, but I'm getting unnecessarily wordy. By taking a class on colloquial Chinese this semester, I've been able to talk more like a regular Chinese person among my friends here. But, I find it harder to talk with taxi drivers, my first intermittent conversation partners in China. Yes, they understand what I'm saying, but when they ask me to repeat a very formal academic word (书面, as the Chinese say), I find myself watering down the beauty of a sentence that I took time to construct into simple sentences. I don't think the fact that I have a bigger vocabulary makes me better or more Chinese than them - I think that studying professional Chinese desensitizes you from something my colloquial Chinese teacher calls "language environment" - that is to say, I should know not to say among my friends that a girl may a protuberant butt when I can just say her ass is big, or that talking about Confucianism or Chinese medicine isn't something that everyone prepares for. To develop this sensitivity to the surroundings is still a work in progress, but by thinking about the words that I learn beyond their fixed definitions, I find myself more sensitive, or “敏感."
October 12th
Music never seems to escape me in this city. A couple research students that I met at the Beijing Language and Culture University invited me to attend a rock concert called the Midi Festival on the outskirts of the fourth ring. Aside from getting lost and asking a million people how to get to the concert, we comfortably arrived at the concert arena, a small music college geared for churning out China's rock artists. Clusters of students in surplus military gear stood outside makeshift tents, an outer ring of cigarette butts growing thick around them. On stage, a French alternative rock group keeps its listeners' heads nodding and hands waving. A couple of kids waved large red flags saying "Independence for Rock Music! Rock Revolution in China!" while running into people all over the place - perfectly raucous.
On the either side of the arena, a smaller stage was set for Chinese rappers freestyling to the beat and melody of Kanye West's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." I'm not exactly sure what they were rapping about, but it had something to do with making money, buying bling, getting girls and beating any other crew that would dare challenge them. The sight of them with fake gold necklaces, oversized sweaters and fake Nike Air Force Ones was enough excuse to leave.
September 22nd
A couple days earlier, I helped plan my roommate's dinner birthday party. In her search of traditional fried duck in a local hutong, I found a lovely restaurant south of Tiananmen Square that has somehow maintained its hutong integrity and duck taste compared to the Quanjude crap.
As for me, I needed any food resembling homemade food - namely, Korean food. I haven't celebrated my birthday with my family for a few years now - during high school it was because of band competitions, during college it was because of the distance. I found a restaurant that served close to authentic Mee-Yok-Gook (미역국, seaweed soup). Traditionally, Koreans eat this soup to remind themselves of the pain that their mothers endured during pregnancy and to thank them for giving them a life.
I've never felt more homesick.
September 16th
I got a call from a friend if I wanted to see Avril Lavigne in Beijing. I thought she was joking, but in a serious voice she offered a VIP ticket to watch the Canadian rock star in a private booth. I ended up at the Wukesong Basketball Stadium a few hours later.
Nobody actually buys the VIP tickets individually in China - they are all bought up by corporations and companies seeking to give their employees bonuses that extend beyond a lump of cash. So, my fellow Lavigne fans were composed of Chinese men in their fifties and expats from Texas and Kentucky working for major oil companies. I think they just came for the champagne.
About fifteen minutes into the concert, the floor in front of the stage was crowded with the real fans - the college and high school students and pop rock enthusiasts dressed in proper gear and laced with glow sticks. Suddenly, the security turned on the lights, the stage manager came on stage and commanded everyone to return to their seats before the concert got canceled. "This is for the safety of the performer and for everyone else's safety."
Since when was Avril afraid of having her fans a few feet away from her? And what does the stage manager have to fear? She is no Cui Jian - revolutions are not start by songs about skater boys and muddled infatuation.
September 14th
Zhongqiu Jie, or the Mid-Autumn Festival - the day for family and friends to get together, to find a place to see the full moon when it is closest to the horizon and to enjoy mooncakes. Nobody wanted to go with me to Houhai to actually see the moon, so I went by myself. Unfortunately, I had to share paths with other couples walking slowly, nibbling mooncake crusts, talking about sweet nothings. A girl looked at me with pitiful eyes as I asked her boyfriend to take a picture for me. Fortunately, the scenery was beautiful. Though the photo that I've uploaded was taken later at night, the moon was red only minutes before, truly 朦胧.
September 12th
As a reward for her hard work as an intern of the 2008 Olympic Games, Danni got a couple tickets to go see the Paralympics from her boss. Not really interested in the Paralympics and already caught up with academics, she offered me the tickets to see the powerlifting finals. I sat among a sea of Chinese flags and red plastic clappers. When the Chinese competitor came out, everyone just rose to their feet, the stands shaking with their cheers. On the television, I heard the familiar cheer "Zhongguo Jia You" (Go China!), but instead I heard a chorus of children led by an enthusiastic teacher yelling "Yundongyuan Jia You" (Go athletes!). Very fitting - to see the blind and the wheelchair-ridden athletes pump more than 300 pounds into the air is not something to cheer based on nationalities, but based on the human spirit.

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Monday, September 8, 2008

Sun YanZi's annoying high-pitch songs played during breaks: Back at IUP

The transition back to IUP was smoother than I had expected. The weather in Beijing is cooler, not nearly as humid as when I had left it. All the trees on the Qinghua Campus are in post-summer bloom. I completely missed orientation, so the faces that I passed by between breaks were unfamiliar, except for the faces of a few Yalies. However, the teachers all say hello as I pass by - I'm glad I haven't been forgotten.

For this module, I am taking courses called "Participation," Broadcast Chinese and Colloquial Chinese. The vocabulary lists are simpler than I had expected, so I spend less time preparing for each class. I find myself reading more Chinese magazines, especially Shenghuo ZhouKan (Life) and Jinrong (Finance), and talking about the things I read with friends and teachers. My Chinese is getting more fluent and my responses to questions are getting longer, but in the midst of all I want to say I drop little characters like 就 or 都. I try not to get extremely excited or angry when I express my thoughts, even if what I say calls for such emotional outbursts. Feelings cloud grammar.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 13

"Why are we stopping?" I ask. We are driving back to Lhasa along the Friendship Highway instead of through the Kamba-La Pass and the old southern route. The Friendship Highway is not really conducive to building friendship - the cracks and huge holes along the road forces Laba to swerve from one lane to another. Laba's soft swears starts to change his eternal facial expression.

"To prevent car accidents along the highway and to prevent traffic, the government forces all cars to stop at checkpoints if the cars have reached the checkpoints faster than their allotted time limit," explains Laba.
We all get out of the car to wait out the remaining twenty minutes. Laba sighes as he sits on the ground to smoke a cigarette. Other drivers and travelers are waiting too, eating corn or watermelon, drinking butter tea or kicking dirt to pass the time. The river down the gorge that we just crossed reminds me of the dirt water in the river streaming down from the Himalaya mountain range, but the huge concrete bridge juxtaposing the natural landscape takes away the natural beauty of the area.
"Come on Basan, let's go," says Laba.
"What?" I reply.
Tsekey says, "You're Basan."
As I get into the car, I ask, "What does Basan mean?"
"Umm... in Tibetan, it means Friday." replies Tsekey.
"Friday, as in the weekday Friday?"
"Yes. Though, it means more than Friday."
"It means something like smooth sailing (specifically 一帆风顺) and good luck," says Laba.
"Why did you call me that?" I ask.
"Just by observation," says Laba.
"What did I do that deserved such a nickname?"
"Everything you've planned and executed, it seems, has been blessed by luck. Think about your trip."
I cannot really see the "luck" that Laba mentions as much as I see pure chance - the clouds around Everest were gone by chance, the travel permit to get into Tibet was by what I think was chance. The real luck that I can see is that by coming to Tibet, I avoided the earthquake that devastated parts of Yunnan and southern Sichuan province a couple days ago. I am truly lucky, however, to be able to visit a region of the world and to see its culture and society, which may be completely warped in the next few decades as the Chinese government pursues its own Manifest Destiny, exploring and exploiting its western resources. I fear that I will be disgusted on the train ride back to Beijing as I see the skies thicken with the hazy gray mixture of fog and smog and airborne coal.

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 12

The headache is back with a vengeance. Eleanor, Genevieve and Jeff have already washed and are having breakfast. I feel like a hammer is pounding my head faster and faster as I get up. I shove some cold medicine and several vitamin C pills down my throat and grit my teeth as I get up to join the others. Over the roofs of the small houses, Qomolangma is completely covered by thick mountain fog. The sun is out, but the fog that bounces red and purple all over the surrounding mountains also hides the yellow ball - or maybe I'm just too high in the world for the sun to be out at this time.
After a breakfast of flour pancakes and butter tea, we drive the first kilometer to the base camp. Mud green tents form a large rectangle. In front of each tent are signs identifying the tents -"Happy Hotel," "Everest Hotel," "Yak Hotel," "Qomolangma Tacky Hotel" - along with rings of heavily tanned Tibetans drinking butter tea. The locals stare at us as we pass through. The base camp seems like a tourist trap for people to say that they "slept at the base camp," but I see no actual climber.
After Laba parks the car, we begin our trek to the base camp and the mountain. The clouds begin to clear as the sun rises higher. I walk up ahead with Laba to avoid scowling at everyone - the pressure of the headache is beginning to lighten, but the lack of oxygen makes talking and breathing painful, which Laba seems to do comfortably as I struggle to keep up with him. He lights a cigarette, the fumes thankfully blowing to his right and not over me.
"Laba, you're almost forty, but not only are you kicking my ass on this hike, you're also smoking," I exasperate.
"Haha, your body isn't too bad," Laba replies, blowing out a swirling whirl of smoke. "You have a headache, but you're still walking ahead of everybody else."
"How do you know I have a headache? I didn't tell you."
"You're not the first tourist that I've taken to Qomolangma."
By the fourth kilometer, we reach a small plateau. To our right a river roars, the pure water saturated by the mountain dirt. I stand up straight to breathe more deeply. Laba lights another cigarette. While waiting for Eleanor and Jeff to catch up, I browse through the pictures of Qomolangma that I have taken on my camera. How is it that the mountain looks exactly the same in my pictures no matter where I take the picture?
We reach the final checkpoint to get closer to the mountain. Unfortunately, we need yet another permit to get closer - this one costs about $1000 per person. Instead, we climb the closest prayer flag and rock stupa covered hill to gaze at Everest. The clouds have almost completely cleared save for a few lingering white strips. On a nearby rock, I see a Sanskrit phrase carved into a rock.
"Tsekey, what does this mean?" I ask.
Our tour guide walks over and glances at the script. "In Chinese, that says '六字真言 (Six True Words),' or in Tibetan 'Ah Mane Padme Hong.' It is repeated by pilgrims and all prayers to prevent pain, death and punishment, to live longer and to get rich."
"I've seen this phrase written on mountainsides and all over Lhasa."
"Yes, it is written everywhere, like ceilings, stone utensils, mountains and doors. It's like 'Ahmitofo' in Chinese Buddhism - to say it will bring it will comfort you and others, to repeat it will bring fortune and good luck."
The monastery across the guesthouse runs this business, using the income to pay for more butter to worship Buddha and more food for new guests. The only locals that visit the girls are young teenage soldiers stationed at small checkpoints along the road to Everest. The soldiers gather around the windows that let in sunlight, slapping playing cards onto the table, yelling "Wo Cao (Fuck)" or "Chi ba (Eat some)" every now and then. The guesthouse that is maintained by two teenage girls, who prepare our meals and keep the bedrooms tidy. The girls are by the other window that lets in sunlight, knotting each others' hair into tidy braids. They have worked here for about three years, taking care of travelers that come and go. Their lives remind me of my experiences as a waiter in San Francisco - they cannot travel, but the world comes to their doorsteps seeking food and shelter while it takes in the local scenery.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 11

The scenery along the highway to Mount Everest is simple - green fields along the road, gray green mountains in the distance with the occasional snow-covered peak, mixed blue sky with white clouds wafting towards the horizon. The car CD stereo plays amusing Indian songs that combine kindgergarten lessons with mature themes, or compliment women excessively:
"ABCDEFGHI...JKLM...NOPQRSTUVWX....YZ.... I love you."
"Lalala, lalala, you are my sonya, lalala, lalala, you are my sonya."
In the backseat, I hear Jeff softly humming the sonya song. When the ABC song is played again, Genevieve starts to sing: "ABCDEFGHI....JKML....wait a second..."
At the first checkpoint of the Mount Everest National Reserve, everyone displays their passports for the Chinese guards to inspect. Afterwards, we drive on dirt road that snakes up a mountain. Slowly we drive, slowly we climb. At the top, we stop to look out into the distance and see four of the highest mountains in the world on the horizon - Qomolangma (Mt. Everest), Kangchengjunga, Lhotse and Makalu. Qomolangma's peak hides behind clouds. Tsekey says, "That's typical...tourists have to wait usually three days, sometimes up to a week, to see the mountain clearly." Fortunately, ten minutes later, the cloud formation blocking our view of Qomolangma moves east. Tsekey says, "You're lucky." The fast winds almost knock us off the rock wall that we stand on - we all huddle back into the car and drive down the winding road.
Three checkpoints and four hours later, we finally see the peak of Qomolangma without a trace of cloud. A single star shines high above the mountain, stained violet in the evening.
At our guesthouse, I start feeling nauseous and my head starts to pound like a migraine. Is this altitude sickness? I sit closer to the firewood stove in the center of the communal room, but excuse myself to get some medicine from my bag in our bedroom. The air outside hits me like a football that bounces off my chest. I look up at the sky. I've only seen Scorpio, Sagittarius and Capricorn in my constellation books, but the sky is full of the white dots. Stars I don't remember seeing in my books appear along the Big Dipper and Casseiopeia. Star clusters and specks of galaxies are so distinct in the black background. The Milky Way rips through the night, its violet red trench cutting the poisonous tail of the Scorpio. The headache is gone, but my breathing rate is spiking. I madly take pictures, but no manual exposure, no special mode can capture that elusive Milky Way. Damn this weak digital camera.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 10

In Shigatse, we decide to have have Indian food for a change from yak meat and yogurt rice. A few curries and naan later, we walk towards the central monastery. At the ticket booth, the old monk looks at my shorts and says I must change into pants. I ask for some cloth to cover my legs - fortunately, he finds a nice festive orange skirt with which I can wrap myself. While walking around the temple, my stomach churns uncomfortably, and run around the temple halls seeking restrooms. Damn curry. I clutch my water bottle, emptied early along the walk. Oh yes - traveller's diarrhea is torture. Unfortunately, I forgot the medicine that Yale provided in my apartment back in Beijing. Fortunately, Genevieve buys a 7-Up for me. It's amazing and magical how a bit of sweet carbonated water can calm a stomach.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 9

Kamba-la Pass takes us south beyond Lhasa to an elevation of 4794 meters above sea level. Yaks eat grass in the distance, their herdsmen specks in along the horizon.
"From here," says Genevieve, "the yaks look like overgrown ants."
At Yamdrok-tso (Blue Lake), we stop for another rest. Yamdrok, Tibetan for the color blue, is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. According to mythology, the lake is a transformation of a goddess, so nobody is allowed to set foot in the waters. I guess the yaks that feed along the water do not count. A Tibetan ornament merchant woman hounds me as I hike up a little hill to get a better view of the lake. "Two for sixty" starts the merchant, dangling necklaces and brooches in front of my face, forcing me to walk around her. By the time I make it down back to the car, she yells "two for ten" in my ears.
Nangartse is a small village more than a town. Downtown is made up of two streets interseting in a T-shape, with the highway to Everest cresting the streets' outer edges. After a dinner of cheese-stuffed dumplings and rice with yogurt, we go for a walk, avoiding the skinny starving dogs that lay passed out (or dead) along the street. A few minutes later, light rain mixes with the dust-caked road, evolving into sizeable drops. We hug the building walls, the colorful banners over doors doing little to protect us from the rain.
We proceed down the street and come across a family huddling inside a fabric store. While Genevieve and Jeff take pictures, the teenagers and children inside the store look in wonder at their cameras. Genevieve hands her digital camera to a curious girl, teaching her how to press the capture button. The girl runs around the front of the store, taking pictures of the little kids eating snacks, pictures of the adults smiling in wonder at the strange little device that freezes their faces for a moment in time, pictures of old housewives with their children looking at Jeff and Genevieve, seeking money in exchange for the pictures that they are taking. I have never seen anyone so fascinated by a digital camera.
As we walk back to our hotel (which, albeit providing thick blankets for the night, offers communal concrete bunkers with holes in the ground for toilets), I hear thunder cracking the air. The rain falls harder as the clouds seem to roll and coagulate over the town faster.
"Did you see that?" Jeff asks.
"What?" I ask.
"The rocket."
"I heard thunder."
"That wasn't thunder - that was the sound of cloud-seeding."

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 8

Eleanor and Genevieve are recovering from the flight in their rooms. Jeff and I meet on the roof of our hotel, from which we look down on Beijing Road cross into Bahkgor Square. Potala Palace pierces the clouds like Pride Rock in the The Lion King. The pace of life here is as fast as that of Beijing's, but there are less people. Chinese soldiers guard intersections and march in brigades, toting Russian rifles and heavy armored shields. The monk riots that occurred a few months ago still seem to worry the government, but these soldiers instill no sense of security. I feel wariness, restlessness. Down on the street, I take a picture of a bicycler. While judging the picture on my camera's digital screen, a solider confronts me and asks to see the picture. I ask why. No pictures of the security forces may be taken, he says. I show him the picture of the bicycler, fearing for the life of my memory card. Fortunately, the background shows no rifle, no green camouflage uniform, no trace of Chinese military occupation in Lhasa. He nods his head and walks away. While on the roof of Jakhong Temple (大昭寺), Jeff took a picture of me - I didn't notice the Chinese military sniper looking down at the market behind me.
Potala Palace - the former residence of the Dalai Lama, now converted into a money-making cultural relic by the Chinese government. The steps up to the White Palace, or the Potrang Karpo, are blocked by steel gates. All stairs lead to the Red Palace, or the Potrang Marpo. Red powder dyes the packed mountain wood walls. As I climb the uneven stone stairs, I use the battlements as support, red grains and splinters accumulating on my hand. I find myself breathing heavily, and sit at the next rest bench. The others continue moving up the stairs with the tour guide. I had just come from climbing Emei Mountain - how could a little less oxygen in the air be affecting me so much?
Up the stairs behind me climbs a skinny old man in Lama monk outfit. His royal red outer cloth and orange shirt are lined with black dirt at the creases. His yellow beanie is like that of Tsongkhapa without the sideburn protectors, though worn from lack of wash. He clutches a small bag of butter, humming softly while climbing the steps one by one. He sits down next to me.
"Hello," I greet.
He nods. I wonder if he can speak Mandarin.
"Are you here to worship?" I ask.
He nods.
"I see."
He looks at me and smiles. "I prayed all the way from Qinghai," said the Lama in accented Mandarin, "to kneel in front of the Dalai Lama."
I smile. Finally a break. "But my tour guide says the Dalai Lama isn't here," I say, "In fact, he hasn't been in the palace for almost sixty years."
"Nonsense, he is here. I have butter."
"What's the butter for?"
"Are you a tourist?"
"Where are you from?"
"Ah! amerigha amerigha!" he exclaims. "Ok, I am rested. Let us go."
He clutches my hand, forces me up, and proceeds to almost drag my body up the stairs with a vigor almost supernatural compared to his state before he sat down. As I pass by Jeff, I smile weakly, still trying to breathe. Jeff looks taken aback, his eyes moving from the Lama to our hands to my face.
"I'll see you guys up there," I say, the Lama pulling me up at an even faster pace.
Inside the chamber of the Dalai Lama, the Lama rummages his pockets and takes out two little black peas that could pass for lint. He quickly swallows one and puts the other in my hand.
"Eat," he commands.
I smell the pea. It vaguely smells of ginseng and ginger. A Lama wouldn't try to kill anyone, I think. I place the pea on my tongue and swallow. The Lama walks through the gate preventing tourists from stepping on the royal carpet and prays in front of the empty throne of the Dalai Lama, his old body flat on the ground with palms raised to the ceiling.
"What was the pill I just ate?" I ask to the man who had sat next to the Lama.
"A piece of Sakyamuni Buddha's body."
"I just ate Buddha?"

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 7

The mountainpeak pierces the clouds - through the small round window of this airplane, these peaks are like icebergs in the Atlantic, hiding their weight and power under the water blanket. I wonder if any of these peaks is Everest. The plane has rows of empty seats. I find a row without any passengers and stretch out, sleeping out the last half hour before arriving in Lhasa.
When I got back to Chengdu before I left for Jiuzhaigou, my guesthouse service attendant, Mary, informed me that the Tibetan travel bureau approved our residence permits as acceptable visas to travel in Tibet. During the Olympics, the Chinese government revised all of the original rules to limit the amount of foreigners entering Tibet. Had the Chinese government not approved my residence permit, I would probably be on a bus right now, heading south to the Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang. I will have to save Yunnan province for later.
The first breath off the plane catches me off guard - the dry cabin conditions and the oxygen-deficient air makes my nose bleed. I roll a tissue and shove it into my nose. The white clouds swirl in the clear blue sky like oil colors on a painter's palette. Brown-tanned guards stand with hands behind their backs, black sunglasses reflecting the sun and my tissue-stuffed nose. I feel my breathing rate increasing. I still don't feel like I'm in a place called Tibet.
Outside, a middle-aged man with a yellow shirt, gray pants and jacket, and a younger looking woman with a red hat and striped-shirt stand holding a sign bearing our names. Enter Laba, our driver, and Tsekey, our travel guide. We toss our all of our luggage into the trunk of Laba's Toyota 4500, and head towards Lhasa. Aside from the basic introductions of "My name is" and "Where did you study your English" and "Your Chinese is nice," the ride is silent. I sit with my mouth half open as we drive through this world of blue skies, green fields and black mountains.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 6

The raindrops on the huge glass panels of the airport terminal does nothing to suppress my frustration as I wait for the sixth hour in the Chengdu Domestic Airport. Weather in Jiuzhaigou is not favorable for air travel, says the flight attendants. Chinese travelers scatter newspaper leaves on the ground as makeshift seats, sit in rings and play cards, smacking poker hands down in traditional Chinese poker fashion, full of power and anger. The instant ramen noodle cups in the airport stores are sold in bundles by the hungry who expected to have their morning porridge on the plane.

Genevieve and I met up with Eleanor and Jeff the night before. Unfortunately, Jeff is down with a cold. Today he is lying on the airport seats passed out under layers of coats. The flat-screen televisions broadcast the championships of the Olympic ping-pong competition and of the beach volleyball competition. I can't tell what the middle-aged men sitting around me are staring more at, the flat abs of the Brazilian women or the concentrated face of the Chinese ping-pong athlete.
If wonderlands exist, Jiuzhaigou Valley must be one of them. The sceneries evoke images of fairytales in dreamlike eloquence - so natural, so pure. The unnaturally blue and green lakes, waterfalls, verdant forests, snow-covered mountains, and the folk customs of the Tibetan and Qiang peoples are overwhelming. Its name is due to the existence of nine stockaded villages of Tibetan origin, and it is always regarded as a holy mountain and watercourse by the Tibetan people. Oddly enough, in order to preserve the antiquity of the Valley, the Chinese government forced the native Tibetan minorities to move to other villages. The nine gullies in the valley were almost completely deserted, save for the few merchants selling scarves, necklaces and toilet paper.
Blue, sky blue, celadon, kingfisher, green blue, blue green - the colors of the water are created by the minerals that wash away from the local rocks into the lakes and rivers. The water is so saturated in minerals that dead logs fallen in these waters sustain new life.
After two days in Jiuzhaigou, the guesthouse service attendant recommends that we explore Zhongchagou, a village not too far away from the Jiuzhaigou National Park. After a rough taxi ride up rocky dirt paths coiling a mountainside, we find ourselves in a quiet little hillside village. We barely walk two hundred meters and come across three children holding plastic bags filled with colored paper and prayer sticks.
"Would you like a tour of our town? We can take you to all the fun places," says one, smiling.
How could we refuse such innocent looking children? We walk through piles of wheat and walls of firewood. Wheat seems to be a municipal affair - all the townpeople lend hands, including eight-year-old children, who heave eighty pound loads of wheat on their backs. The firewood is necessary for the long winter. In one day, the entire town will burn enough firewood to build a house.
The children take us up the hillside to a grassy opening littered with colored paper. Prayer flags weave together among the trees to form a web of sorts, the center of which is a prayer stupa. At this point, the children look down at my feet as they rub their feet together, both hands clinging to their bags.
"Will you buy some colored paper? You should pray for your happiness. Buy some prayer sticks, prayer for future fortune! How about some prayer flags?" they plead. I cannot say I didn't expect this to happen. We buy several packs of paper and bundles of sticks to burn and place inside the stupa.
"What do I do with the paper?" I ask.
"As you walk around the stupa, throw it up in the air three times while repeating your wishes to yourself. This way, your wish will come true," the children explain.
"When did prayers become wishes," I mumble.

I wonder, as a traveler, if I change these villagers' view of the world as much their lives change my perspectives. I feel guilty for tainting this valley by treading all around it in my worn shoes, guilty for bursting this cultural bubble. I wonder if these children, selling so much prayer paper to so many passersby, see the world differently from the villagers to harvest wheat and collect firewood. Is their world made up of school during the fall and spring, and business during the summer? When they are of age, will they join the ranks of wheat cutters and wheat transporters? Or will they refuse, having seen the luxuries of travelers, seeking the excitement of travel for their own? I fear, as a traveler, that I exchange cultural deconstruction for cutural enrichment.

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