Monday, January 26, 2009

Silence: 玉龙雪山

Unfortunately, many Chinese tourists do not get to explore much beyond the beginnings of a nature path. The tour guides take them from one “pretty" zone to another (the number of times, as a traveler in China, that you hear “哇,太漂亮了!" or "太美了!" or my favorite "美死了!" from others will quickly exceed the sum of your toes and fingers) like dogs on leashes.
Fortunately, that leaves me much freedom on the path at the Jade Snow Mountain to do as I please - so I walk off the path. A couple miles of trekking later, I realize that I only had a dozen dumplings for breakfast and am hungry. I rummage around my backpack for leftover crackers that I bought in Beijing. After chewing for a little bit, I stop. I'm the only human being making a sound. In the distance, the white Tibetan-style temple is the size of a penny. Horses and cows make dots on neighboring hills. I hold my breath - it's too loud, even though I was only breathing in shallow gulps. My brain is talking with thoughts suddenly surfacing to fill the silence. I wonder if this is what walking in outer space is sound, the only sensation anchoring you to life your heart beat, memories reminding you that you existed, exist and will exist. 
A faint cowbell rings, the mountain exhales, ushering clouds over its head onto mine. 

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Firecrackers, Dying Chicken Sounds and Dramatic Opera : 春节, a photoblog

I was fortunate to celebrate the Spring Festival with one of the teachers at my Chinese language program, Sun Laoshi. As a foreign student, I am an explorer of culture. In textbooks, we read about customs and traditions. If the textbook is good, it may provide illustrations or pictures, but more often our Chinese textbooks are black and white and forces our imaginations to fill in the blanks. In Lijiang, I compared the images that I conjured with the actual Chunjie preparations and activities of the Sun family.

The day starts early - after a simple breakfast of tea, cheese and ant mushrooms, Auntie Sun is peeling and cutting vegetables (left). Sun and Ding Laoshi head out to the local supermarket to buy chunlian, red couplets hung on door frames (right). Everyone has something red on - Auntie has her sweater, Uncle has his shirt and socks, Sun Laoshi with her dress, Ding Laoshi with his underwear (he said).
While Sun and Ding Laoshi clean the house, Uncle Sun and I go to the backyard to prepare the chicken. "In the south, the chicken is traditionally prepared by each family on their own," explains Uncle as he sharpens the butcher knife. "The feet are especially important - we eat the feet to grab more fortune in the future. 新年抓财." He grabs the chicken's wings and feet and slits its throat, draining the blood into a bowl of water below its head. Suddenly, the chicken jolts erratically, surprising Uncle Sun to loosen his grip on its feet, which kick the blood bowl and splash its contents all over me and him. "Damn it," he says, "That was one of the best parts of the chicken!" Auntie Sun has me change into some of Uncle Sun's old military clothes to wash the blood drops off my pants. Uncle and I strip the chicken of its feathers, using hot water to make the "defeathering" easier. I nearly rip into its insides to take out particularly annoying little needle of a feather, but realize that I was slightly blinded by the blood crusted on my glasses. Uncle takes the chicken by its legs into the kitchen and tosses it around on top of the stove. The chicken's skin crackles and gets taut from the fire. Inside, Auntie is preparing the fish while Sun Laoshi is preparing a few side dishes. "Next year, I'm retiring from all of this - Sun Laoshi is going to do everything. She has to start learning now..." Sun Laoshi silently makes an expression at her mother while she lines a bowl with orange peels to make 八宝饭, or eight-treasure rice pudding. “Fish is also important - 年年有鱼,吉庆有余 - every year have fish, fortune will be abundant."
The dinner before Chunjie itself is a very important meal - to reflect and to celebrate the accomplishments of the year and to exchange wishes among family members for the new year. "Every family celebrates this meal by themselves - for the fifteen days following the new year, we will go to our relatives' houses to share meals and wishes with them," says Uncle Sun.
"And money," I add.
"Ah yes, hongbao. Fortunately, a lot of the younger ones in my family have already started to make money, so I don't have to give them red envelopes anymore."
"So Sun Laoshi has to start giving hongbao now?" I ask.
"Yes," says Sun Laoshi from the kitchen.
"On New Year's Day, we will all go to our ancestor's graves to saomu (扫墓, dust the graves) and wish for blessings from the ancestors." Uncle Sam's cell phone beeps. "Ah... the new year text messages are starting to come in, one by one..." A few minutes later, my cell phone also rings with incoming messages full of blessings and "Happy 牛 Year" lines which soon become hackneyed.
At last, dinner is prepared and set on the backyard table. Uncle Sun breaks out red wine and Auntie ladles soup to everyone. Everybody at the table warns me to eat slowly and pace myself. Every few minutes, everyone also raises their glasses to me for a toast and wish - blessings for good health and good grades, wishes for greater fortune and happiness are shared and downed with a clink and ganbei.
We get up from the table slowly - I am the last to get up after having to finish all the bits of food that Auntie put into my bowl. After clearing the table, Uncle Sun pours little cups of puer tea for everyone as Ding Laoshi shuffles cards. "Do you usually stay up until midnight like my textbook says?" I ask.
"We're all too old for that," Ding Laoshi says, "After a few hours of the New Year show on television, we'll all start to go to sleep."
At eight in the evening, we all make ourselves comfortable in the living room in front of the television. Nuts, fruit and drinks are piled on the center table to refresh ourselves over the course of the variety show. We watch, laughing and chuckling during comedy segments, taking bathroom breaks while performers sing. It seems that digesting the dinner meal is taking its toll on everybody's energy level. Auntie and Uncle Sun go off to bed two hours into the show. I try to make it to the end, but after the fifth singer trying to reach high notes ungracefully, I express thanks to my teacher and leave.
Outside on the streets, I grab a taxi back to my hotel room. At every few light poles, locals are hanging and tossing lit firecrackers, which pop and crack in a mess of white balls. Fireworks burst over my head from building roofs, the sparks and colors comparable to fourth of July fireworks. In the western world, we split celebrations by time zones, but in China everywhere is Beijing time. The view of China from outer space must be dazzling, to see the entire country blinking with white light. Scraps of red firework covers litter the streets and alleyways and the front of stores. I sure after fifteen days of fireworks, fish and chicken, the Nian monster will be scared enough and allow humans to live a peaceful year. For now, I just want a peaceful sleep without fireworks.

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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Tang Dynasty Pipa: Lijiang, or 心旷神怡

5AM plane to Lijiang. I couldn't sleep at the hostel again, thanks to another round of drunk people, this time Chinese drunks, outside my window. How do you yell crazily for hours without needing to throw up or sleep? Even on the bus from Lijiang Airport to downtown Lijiang, I couldn't sleep. Acre after acre of elevated farmland in sunrise with the Jade Snow Mountain in the background passed by. A couple toddlers were sitting behind me, glued to the window as well. The bus windows fogged up because of the car heater. I used the window curtain to wipe off the moisture. The kids followed suit. I couldn't help but eavesdrop on their conversation:

Kid 1: Is that the Jade Snow Mountain?
Kid 2: Duh, it's the tallest mountain around here, didn't you hear uncle say that?
1: Yeah, but why isn't there much snow on it? Isn't the Jade Snow Mountain supposed to have snow on it?
2: Uh...maybe it's because of that, um.... "global..."
1: Uncle, is that Jade Snow Mountain?
Uncle (in the row behind them, talking on his cellphone): Huh? Yes, yes, we'll get there soon...
1: No way, that can't be!
2: Is too!
1: I'll bet with you.
2: What do you want to bet?
1: If I'm right, you have to call me 三大哥(Big brother, a term of high rank in gangs).
2: Fine. If I'm right, you have to call me that too.
1: I'm not going to call you that! You're already younger than me.
2: Then why are you sitting on me like you sit on your mom?
1: Because I want to see the view.
2: Ugh... uncle, are we there yet?
(Uncle continues to talk on the cellphone. The kids continue to squabble.)

I finally meet Sun Laoshi (Teacher Sun). She picks up one of bags.
"Oh, you don't have to help me, I'm fine on my own." I say.
She hands my bag to an older tanned man behind her. He smiles at me.
"My dad," Sun Laoshi says.
They have the same nose, eyes and chin, but their skin tones make a huge contrast.
"Haha..."I try to laugh my doubts off. "Nice to meet you Uncle Sun." (In China, you are part of one big family, whether you are foreign or Chinese. Anyone old enough to be your parents is either an uncle or an aunt.)
Inside, Aunt Sun and Sun Laoshi's boyfriend, Ding Laoshi, greet me. We have a slow breakfast of local Lijiang pastry, cheese, pickled ant mushrooms (mushrooms that grow only around ants) and salty buttered tea. "Don't be so formal," Aunt Sun says, ladling more buttered tea into my cup. "We Lijiangers don't have many formalities - all you need to do is make yourself at home." I nod with a mouthful of ant mushrooms.

The Old Town is a cobweb of streets, with more hotels and self-proclaimed inns than souvenir shops and restaurants. It seems that as long as you're a resident inside the Old Town, you can just make a sign saying "客栈" (Inn) and make money. Sun and Ding Laoshi are taking a million pictures of themselves together. Feeling like a third wheel, I wander on my own through the streets. Further south, I slosh into a huge open air market, busy with locals frantically buying supplies for their Spring Festival dinners - odors of live chicken, cabbage, fish and scents of spices and roasted nuts mix, spiked by yells by sellers and buyers debating prices. The locals carry large weaved baskets on their backs - environment-friendly grocery bags with culture, methinks.
Weaving backwards through smaller streets, I hear a djembe somewhere. I follow the beats to a street laced with stone and wood bridges. The man sitting across from a small instrument outlet bangs irregular beats. I sit down next to him. He just hands me the djembe and tells me to beat something out. (Sound like The Visitor anyone?) Hearkening back to my marching band days, I just hit the drum as rhythmically as possible. I was never a percussionist - my hands wear down as quickly as my inconsistent beats. Tourists walking by stop to take pictures of me. Some toss a few mao, which the drum seller swiftly picks up. After a while, Sun Laoshi calls - time to go.

Words from Uncle Sun:
Sun: I've been a high school teacher, and if there's anything I've learned from my two decades of teaching, it's that young people need time, much more time beyond their time in school. You don't learn anything in structured things like school - you need time out there. School doesn't give you a road with a direction - it just give you a paved road complete with asphalt. You can do anything, no matter what your passion is, no matter what you study. It's all for perspective, a gate you pass through to get true perspective. Only then do you have a direction, something to actually strive for. Everything else is background, something to form your conscience.

(Note: the rather ominous looking wooden gate above is used to dry corn.)

postscript from my notebook: majiang, wow why is sun laoshi so good, forgot to take pictures because 1 i was so mesmerized by rate at which my teacher was making money off her relatives 2 because i got so bored by it that i couldn't bear being in the same room

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stone percussion: 石林

The Stone Forest is about an hour and half northeast of Kunming. Apparently, it's as big as a tourist attraction as the Over-the-Bridge Noodles. At the bus ticket station, I wait for an hour, watching commuters, tourists and travelers rush on and off buses to their destinations. On the bus, we're still missing one person, namely the person supposed to sit next to me. People in the back yell, "Just leave, that person's already paid but isn't showing up." In a few moments, a girl gets on the bus, and a few passengers grunt and shuffle. The girl takes her seat, and the bus takes off.
Azuneshi is also a student studying abroad from Japan in Hangzhou. She surprised I'm not Chinese. During the bus ride up to Shilin, we talk about our reasons for being in China. She likes Chinese tea - I guess Japanese tea ceremonies were boring to her. She's in Yunnan to observe and survey the local tea factories and fields, hoping to get some inspiration for her master's degree thesis. She mentions that she's traveling with a group of Korean students, all staying at a hostel run by a Korean man who only lets Koreans stay at his hostel. "I'm lucky," she says.
The Stone Forest is much bigger than I thought, and it's nice to have someone to converse with while walking around the park. Some areas of the park have a Jurassic Park atmosphere,

creating imaginary fears that a pack of velociraptors may be hiding behind boulders and behind bushes, watching me. While walking around, we come across a tourist group from Guangdong, asking us to take pictures of them. Ten digital cameras and way too many victory signs later, they all guess our nationalities. They get mine right, but when they try to guess Azuneshi's, they stumble. "Korean," Azuneshi says. They all smile, saying, "I knew it" as they walk to the next photo op. She looks at me and says, "I'm kind of hesitant to say I'm Japanese, especially since I've been to Nanjing." I decide not to press the conversation further and just enjoy the scenery.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Rushing Scooters: Kunming

Observation: I'm tall. As I wait for a taxi to get to my hostel, I suddenly realize I'm looking over the entire line over everybody's heads to see Kunming. The person next to me in line (nobody really stands behind you in a line in China) is also from the Beijing area. The same sense of belonging encourages us to share a taxi downtown. In the car, we go through a routine of basic introductions, and start making basic observations about Kunming, starting with the traffic. There seems to be only one two-lane street connecting the airport to downtown. Both sides of the street are half-finished lanes, highways and construction debris. The Beijing person in my car says, "This is like Beijing in the 90s." I don't think I've stepped in a time-machine by going west, especially after passing by a huge Walmart and a couple McDonald's.

At the hostel, I ask the front desk for a dinner recommendation. They just point downstairs to the noodle restaurant. To travel in Yunnan without having eaten Over-the-Bridge Noodles (过桥米线) is to not have traveled in this province at all, they say. The plate - I should say plates - are interesting. The cooking is done yourself, at the table. The ingredients are all on small separate plates, ranging from pork slices to cilantro to red peppers to a small quail egg. All these are in thrown into a huge bowl of steaming broth, whose high temperature is maintained by a layer of oil and fat on the surface.

After a night of wandering through streets and alleyways, I wind up back at the hostel. In my dorm, a short buff guy from Hubei is lying on his bed. Another guy from Shanghai is getting dressed, preparing to go to the mini club-bar alleyway for "another night of mayhem." By the time I get ready to sleep, he is gone and a woman is arranging her bed. The Hubei guy, the woman and I chat a bit. The Hubei guy is in town partly for business, mainly to accompany a traveling friend. The woman is using Kunming as her gateway to Laos. At one point, the conversation turns dead, and she suddenly says, "You're a Virgo, right?"
"Yes..." I reply.
"But you're like a Libra." she says.
"I'm born on a cusp."
"Ah. I knew it!"
"How did you know that?" the Hubei guy asks.
"Just from the way you talk and what you say." she says matter-of-factly.
"It seems like you're pretty versed in astrology." I say.
"You're such a perfect Virgo-Libra." she says excitedly.
"How so?" Now I'm curious how this person I've talked to for the last twenty minutes can tell my personality from a brief conversation.
"You live optimistically but think pessimistically." she replied.
I laugh. I laugh a bit more, and then think for a bit. She sees that I'm thinking. "You're focused and get what you want out of life, but you're always thinking in extremes, thinking mainly for the worst," she explains.
I'm not sure where I can buy that. I think I laughed mainly because her first reply was so catchy and rhythmic.
"You won't be satisfied with your life unless you're sacrificing yourself." she goes on.
Now I'm silent. What sort of life is a sacrificed life?

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Song Without Words: The Beijing Exodus

I can't find my cellphone. Not that I really need it right now, but it beeps every now and then, notifying me that I have a new message - probably the daily news digest. It's somewhere in the pile of magazines, newspapers and books next to my bed. Nobody's calling now, unless they're in Beijing. But with the Spring Festival coming up soon, everyone's preparing their luggage and tickets to get on the next train or plane out of the capital.

I realized how dramatic this annual event was when I tried to place my usual delivery order for some lunch. The usual tired attendant's voice didn't pick up the phone after I called three times in a row. I went outside to get a to-go order of some street meat and vegetable shish-kababs. Not a single stand was in sight. For the first evening since I've been in this neighborhood, the little curving streets around my apartment were empty, quiet...and clean. Even the local restaurants were all closed. The delivery people, the waitresses, the cooks, everyone has gone home.

I made some convenient noodles.
A few people still linger around, walking in and out of the area pulling their luggage around. The happy ones go, with airplane tickets reserved online or with train tickets bought months in advance. The sad ones return, resting another night in their apartments before waking up again at three or four in the morning to rush to the train ticket booths, hoping to buy a ticket to get them out of this place. A walk by the Wudaokou ticket booth at eight in the evening told me the ones sleeping had no chance - some people are camping outside, armed with noodle bowls, blankets and mp3s to fight for the last few hard seats.
A few early birds are popping firecrackers somewhere.

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Drumbeats and Guqin Plucks: Three Quarters Later

My bike has changed. Dark grit-covered bike chains with frozen grease, slanting basket, tire frames with occasional dents and bents - the wear and tear are obvious. My pant legs get dirty every time I bike from my apartment to school. Though the bicycle only has one gear, every time I bike it feels as if I'm cycling up a hill, sixty-degree incline. To be honest, I didn't notice the increasing resistance. I prefer to walk now - I don't feel the anxiety of racing against crazy taxi drivers and dodging other cyclists when I just watch others get into accidents.

I used to be able to recall where I learned every character, sentence structure or chengyu, but now all the hanzi just swim in my head, randomly making an appearance at the tip of my tongue rather than on call. Before, I struggled to find the right word, but now I struggle to find the best word. Limited vocabulary is a damper on expression, but a rich vocabulary itself is a bottleneck as well when you are trying to find the best synonym among a group of words that have the same meaning. However, I realized the only reason I couldn't find the best word was because I was in a hurry to express my thoughts, resulting in sentences that when crafted look like magnets held together and split apart by string. My progress reports at IUP reflected high test marks, but one comment united all the teachers - I am rushing this language. My classical Chinese teacher is skilled in calligraphy, but the other day I realized he was also skilled in graphology - "Your characters are hurried and impatient, just like you." According to my Chinese astrology forecast, the Ox year will be a year that challenges the patience and perseverance of those born in the year of the dragon. It seems that the zodiac is harmonized with my Chinese education. This past semester at IUP, I was blessed to be studying with some of the program's most experienced teachers. I hope that during my last two semesters I continue to study with the program's best teachers and build my love for the language and culture. Along the way, it wouldn't hurt to find this Patience thing that everyone says I don't have.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Deck the Lanterns: Christmas and New Year's

Christmas trees are everywhere. Every website, every shopping center, every restaurant - seeing a green plastic pine tree laced with blinking lights next to small golden Daoist statues was interesting - even IUP had a decent sized Christmas tree to greet everyone who climbed up to the fifth floor. Not many students nor teachers at Tsinghua or IUP seemed to get into the holiday spirit - "it isn't my holiday," they say. I wonder if advertisers really know their consumers' thoughts when they decide to buy huge trees to park in front of shops.
At IUP, we get one day off for Christmas day. On the night of Christmas Eve, Jill (my roommate) and I met with friends for dinner, and what Christmas dinner is complete without Korean barbeque? I somehow became the designated cook. No matter - listening to my older colleagues' high school stories of sniffing coke and clashes with the police while slicing up the meat to fry in the center charcoal pit is more interesting than bringing up cheesy holiday stories and jokes about chestnuts roasting in an open fire. Afterwards, classmates and some of the younger teachers got together for spiced cider and treats at a student's apartment.
Life doesn't stop on Christmas in Beijing - the streets are still crowded with glove-sellers, corn-sellers and jianbing-sellers. After Wudaokou's streets were renovated during the Olympics, the number of illegal vendors on the streets have increased, led noticeably by jewelry sellers from Qinghai and Tibet. It's hard to walk up the stairs to the subway station without stepping onto the yellow rug and torquoise trinkets of these westerners. During the evening, vendors begin to sell sparking sticks and puppies barely a month old. Elderly men shake porridge tins as I walk by, mumbling coarsely, "Shengdan kuaile, shengdan kuaile" (Merry Christmas).
Five days later, IUP let its students and teachers rest another day to celebrate the new year. A former IUP student hosted a party on the east side of Beijing, The party reminded me of frat parties - dim lights, living room floor slightly sticky because of spilt beer, unfamiliar faces - a small American microcosm in the middle of China. I left half an hour before midnight,
taking a taxi to the center of the Chinese universe - the Forbidden Palace. The taxi stopped a good 300 meters away from the entrance because of police blockade. In front Mao's huge portrait, foreigners and Chinese gathered, moving around while taking photos to prove to the world that they stood in front of the palace on New Year's Day (like I did). I forgot my watch, but conveniently a circle of expats started yelling the countdown for everyone to join in. Ten minutes after the cheers and hugs and moos, cars and buses started whizzing across the palace as usual, the police and guard cautiously looking about for potential bombers or terrorists.

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