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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