Linchuan, Fuzhou, Nanchang, Ji’An, and Guangzhou

February 1, 2012

This entry has been a long time coming, and it’s more of three in one. I’ll add plenty of photos later when this website isn’t being so weird, although all my photos are up on Facebook presently, including the boring ones. Within: dance numbers, murder, grizzled dockworkers, stunning architecture, racial tension, current events, an icy mountaintop temple, a stalker, the death of a god, drugs, prostitutes, homemade snacks, and more. There’s probably more of interest to say about Ji’An than for the other locations, as it was the most recent location and I stayed there during the holiday season. Most of what I had to say of Linchuan and Fuzhou, the cities where I was teaching, I said before. What follows concerns teaching little; mostly dance numbers, murder, etc. During this time we heard hardly a peep from CSETC, and aside from our extracurricular group discussions and presentations things ran very smoothly. There was the occasional anecdotal event during the school days. It was a little uncomfortable teaching about Nelson Mandela when the government building down the block from us was bombed by an enraged farmer that May. I also had to physically force some students out onto the balcony when their roughhousing was still interrupting class fifteen minutes in (with a class of sixty I tend to be more lenient). There was a day when an activity called for pairing students and I had to pair two stragglers of different sexes, whereupon this seventeen-year-old girl became inconsolable over having to work with a boy. When Cooper and Kao taught a unit on health and safety, their students recommended cutting off the affected limb in the event of snakebites or killing the victim to end their pain, and choking individuals were advised to drink a glass of water. I gave a student guitar lessons and got destroyed consistently at xianqi playing with shopowners on the campus perimeter, and one time we took students out to a Western-themed restaurant where everyone was confused, the students over silverware and steak and the foreign teachers over the cook’s liberal sense of ‘rare’ and eggs in the spaghetti. Other than that, I finished off grad school apps for this season, completed the collected fictions of Borges and Pirandello’s Six Characters as well as On the Road, at Cooper’s request, and reread Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Art of Syntax, got a little too good at SNES RPGs, and worked on my singing voice.

We ran into a group of expats teaching at the Technical Institute in Fuzhou, which happens to be the site of China’s first nuclear research program, still active today (no, you can’t visit the reactor). This gave us all sorts of conversation which we wouldn’t have had otherwise to look forward to each weekend in our routine, which was huge for us although not much to write home about. Foremost among many were Dave, Catherine, Robin, Kevin, Jesus, Nicole, and Chris, out of New Zealand, China, U.K., China, and the U.S. respectively. I say expats to keep it simple, because a large number of the group’s members were uni students looking to practice their English in a more casual environment, with a little help from Dave’s wife Catherine and each other. Some of them didn’t really need the practice. One student, the aforementioned Kevin, had spent the past several years watching ‘Sex & the City’, so his accent and inflection were as polished as I’ve ever heard, and his trivia knowledge was off the damn charts. I believe his plans in the near future are to enter post-graduate study at the University of California Berkeley where he hopes to advocate and translate contemporary Chinese texts, one author in particular whose name escapes me unsurprisingly. He first greeted us by mockingly squealing “Wooow, A-mer-icans!” followed later by a deadpan “could do your job.” We were instantly won over. He was right, and he sympathized with our sense of dislocation, having seized our pop culture by the throat and totally assimilated it. As a gay man in China (although according to our students there’s no such thing), I presume this allows him more registers of openness; when he took the stand for a singing competition wearing a ‘[rooster] + [lollipop]’ T-Shirt it went over the heads of everybody except Nicole in the back, who was in hysterics. I’m pretty sure his combination of confidence and levity was important for bringing the students and the expats in the group together and giving everyone a sense of belonging. When a Chinese citizen laughs and says ‘c’mon, nobody understands China’ it takes some pressure off. It was as simple as all of us putting on some music and making dumplings and coffee or whatever, watching the lunar eclipse, or hitting the KTV, and we ended up spending Thanksgiving and New Year’s together, pulling together a sense of those holidays we wouldn’t have otherwise, albeit with some twists, like how Nicole took the turkey to a shop down the street that deep fried a whole duck for RMB 20 and gave our fowl the same treatment just because we could.

I wasn’t particularly missing the holidays, so our improvisation on Christmas was suitable. Cooking with the TOEFL students was a bit messy, since they decided to haul everything into the classroom, hotplates and washbasins and entirely too much oil. When we stepped in to help they cried madness, claiming eggplant, pepper, and garlic shoots would taste horrible if mixed with beef, pepper, and garlic shoots. Spaghetti, the only exotic thing we could get the ingredients for, drew similar upset: “No, no, too much water!” “The tomatoes are too small!” “You add beef?!” Luckily they were all excited to try it and we managed to get rid of the whole batch. I went out with them afterwards through a mountain path to the east of town, where aside from a nice sunset we were all puzzled to find the majority of chickens and dogs in the neighborhood missing one foot each. From there it was a trip to Fuzhou’s hoity-toity hotel, Royal Something, with the expats, where I am happy to say I got the most extravagant meal of my life for under $20. So, you know, if you’re ever in town. There were plenty of Christmas decorations about Fuzhou beforehand, and on Christmas Eve the heart of town was the busiest I’ve ever seen it, positively choked with shuffling bodies and silly string, but all the same students didn’t know much about Christmas when teachers asked me to present on it, suffice it to say they recognized the tree and that guy with the beard. Some stores had an altered version of Santa with golden whorls about his face and an inscription on his now crown-like hat. I suppose the explosion of red and gifts ties in well with the subsequent Chinese New Year, not that anyone needs a reason to celebrate Christmas anymore. Later during the Spring Festival I would also find rural families hanging branches of perennial plants over their doors to invite longevity, if that should sound familiar.

The celebrations of western New Year’s were a little different. The teachers at Linchuan No. 1 invited us to their staff celebration on the 30th where they all performed for each other. Cooper had washed his hands of China at this point, Vang had skipped town for Beijing before anyone could stop her, and Kao as usual had a busy schedule hanging out with students, with whom she was exceptionally popular outside of class. We were asked to prepare something of our own, but with two days’ notice I was simply poring over all the songs I knew for something fitting. The winters of Jiangxi are quite balmy, mid-40s Fahrenheit or so, but for this same reason there is no indoor heating. Due to such atmosphere and a little too much force in attempting to change it, the guitar’s high E string’s peg had snapped in half, the string remaining jammed in the body, so choices were more limited than usual. I scrambled to re-memorize the lyrics of Tian Mi Mi and checked chords in preparation to play through that one miserable verse of Auld Lang Syne just in case (nobody in the history of the human race has ever memorized the verses of Auld Lang Syne beyond the first one). Tian Mi Mi isn’t really pertinent, but in these parts I figured a laowai singing in Chinese still has a cute factor that should suit the occasion, right?

Wrong. I failed to account for the fact that the school had hundreds upon hundreds of teachers. When I got to the amphitheatre they were all packed together in high attire, except for those preparing backstage. I hid my guitar behind the sound box and crept to a seat in the back of the room where teachers’ children had been sequestered. It would be easier to make conversation with them; at the very least I could exchange funny faces or ask questions I wouldn’t understand the answers to. That worked for a while. The stage lights went up and the Senior 1 English teachers, my peers, ran out in honest-to-god spandex body suits with sequins, ribbons, and a giant silk sheet, and commenced a quasi-ballet number, pirouettes, splits, backflips and all. An English teacher from another year began to explain that this represented the events of a traditional story which I did not commit to memory because I was pretty sure this was all just a really strange dream. Retired teachers gathered in a chorus, a lone teacher performed a fan dance that was very pleasant in a ‘young-at-heart’ way even though her pants were totally transparent, and administrators shouted a series of parallel poems they’d composed. The poetry reading lasted approximately twenty minutes, grounded in none other than the inimitable kitsch of Kenny G, every stanza concluding with ‘wo ai ni, Zhongguo’ – ‘I love you, China’.

Around the time a younger teacher took the stage and proceeded to die a thousand deaths attempting to rap bilingually over ‘Dream On’, I received a phone call from our local superior, Margo, asking where we were. I met her backstage and, for want of my fellow teachers, she encouraged me to say something for the audience, giving me a few new key phrases which I could end on. In the minutes before the current act resolved itself, she also went into persuasions: the other teachers are inspired by you, you have a lot of potential, we can get you the Z Visa, you can sign a contract with us when you return next fall, you will return next fall, yes? I bobbled my head ambiguously, explaining the complications, tapering to a false conclusion. Relieved that I was no longer expected to perform, I took the stage after a dancing couple, got as far as testing the mic in Chinese (‘wei’), sauntered through some form of English, thank glad generous all the dedicated as international beautiful share learn a grow for future, applause, ended on the phrases, ‘xin nien hao he dan kwai le’ – lit. ‘new year good and big happy’, exited to behind the sound box, picked up the guitar, and ran like the wind for the Technical Institute and for Nanchang.

I have never spent a New Year’s Eve in a bar before, or drinking for that matter, but according to the majority of our motley expat crew that’s the primary tradition of the holiday. The solitary, flashy new bar in Fuzhou had recently shut down after a bouncer murdered a patron on the floor, so the closest establishment was a three hour bus ride to the province capitol, where I’d once before wasted a rainy day trying to get a cab to do some sightseeing on my day off. Having passed through it five times I will maintain that Nanchang is of anywhere I’ve been the hardest place to get around. New Year’s was a comfortable occasion, hopping from place to place, alternately checking the tube for football matches and men in fur-lined leather vests with metal spikes singing ballads about how much they missed their parents. At an expat place too rich for our blood we ran into the most Texan man imaginable and a severely be-dreadlocked guy doing that dance (splaying his feet and noodling his arms around at a ninety-degree angle with a beer in one hand). There were some rough patches; we were turned away from one bar admitting others on the grounds that the bouncers didn’t like white people, and some men at a corner barbecue harassed Catherine, essentially calling her an Uncle Tom. At midnight we were in a comfortably crowded place, toasting other patrons and the staff, although I became bogged down with a girl who wanted to practice her English in the form of very leading conversations. I’ve been criticized on more than one occasion for not taking advantage of such situations, but knowing what it is I’m taking advantage of just makes it creepy to me. When a girl tells me I look like Edward Cullen and emphatically states that she loves, hang on, let her check her phone dictionary…this (‘half-breeds’, ‘hybrids’) I’m not exactly swooning.

This fetishism is appealing to a lot of men that come to China, but seeing it in action can be less than flattering. Near the end of my time in Linchuan I acquired an all-out stalker. The first time I met this uni student at a typical expat meetup the first words out of her mouth were a request for my phone number, to which I simply replied ‘why’. After admonishing from the adjacent table I complied. Starting the next day I received regular text messages asking me if I liked oranges, chocolate, etc., always signed with a ‘8P’. Then there was the day I agreed to oranges and she got very lost, since she presumed I was on the uni campus. She spent seven hours finding my dorm, interrupting my classes with phone calls for further directions. The next day I was in the shower when I heard a knock. Half an hour later when I was dried off and dressed she was still knocking. She had brought a scarf. Cooper later informed me that she’d been standing at the end of our hallway in the dark for several hours beforehand. Then she started requesting photographs of me. ‘Requesting’ isn’t the right word. I quote one at length:

I have known you will not reture after this time maybe we will not meet again so i just want one picture of you can you give me one as a gift I am very happy an luky to meet you although we are not very good friend and we will lose touch with each other i still treat you as an important person in my life maybe we have chace to come across again and i hope if that day come i can recognize you it’s ok that you will not recognize me many years later but i must know that boy is you who i will come across from bottom of my heart i hope you have a bright future and happy life so can i have one photo of you i only want this of you Miles although i still don’t know what’s the meaning of your name but i will remeber it forever and if possible we can keep in touch with each other alright and don’t forget the most important thing — your photo. -Herman 8P

I will also provide the subsequent message:

Hi, Miles can you open the door? 8P

For the record, I had spoken perhaps a dozen sentences to her over this whole period. Of course this isn’t strictly romantic. Vang had a girl following her with requests to bring her back to America. One day this girl asked me in class if Vang would do so, whereupon I explained the various difficulties in bringing someone to another country and she started crying. This is not just a matter of mystique, either. If you go to larger cities the mystique is gone but the imperative lingers, as cynical as it is sincere.

For example, the time Cooper and I went to Guangzhou. The city is beautiful, located in the Cantonese area of China, which has been transformed by its long history as an international trade hotspot. Very warm, very clean, very cosmopolitan. After we arrived, it slowly dawned on us that the air wasn’t flooded with car horns. How did anyone get anywhere without crashing? Turns out they had these things called traffic laws. A pair of Caucasian children was skipping together down the sidewalk chatting with each other excitedly in Chinese. The sun was visible. The architecture was overwhelming, all sorts of fresh contemporary design everywhere you looked. We spent the first day just walking through the city center and gazing around, and that was enough. Nobody here was going to talk to you just because you were foreign; some expats would even make a point of ignoring you. It worked out fine, and was a welcome change from Linchuan. This trip would have taken place between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I believe, and it was my big trip of the semester. Cooper would also go on to visit Hong Kong and Shanghai, which he reported to be even cooler. At our hostel we ran into a man named Jimmy who had just finished uni and was looking for a job in sports. He had previous experience escorting NBA players around the city – even got to help out Kevin Garnett, although he was too starstruck to actually speak with him. He helped confirm Cooper’s suspicion that once you’ve laid your grammatical foundation T.V. is the best way to learn another language without leaving your house; in this case, Friends. Jimmy was exceedingly fun to talk with, and sometimes his questions were as interesting to me as they were to him – the origins of slang, which slang was commonly used and which was worn out, the trends of accents, etc. During this time we took a trip through the best zoo I’ve ever seen, visited a few parks, and headed out of town toward Lian Hua Shan for a temple visit and to satisfy Cooper’s curiosity over San Bian Jiu, lit. Three Whip Booze, brewed with the penises of three different species, usually dog, snake(?!), and any kind of hooved animal. It actually had a nice maple taste to it, significantly better than the medicinal jinjiu or the notoriously noxious baijiu, but I’m losing my penis of thought here.

Amidst the vibrance of Guangzhou is The Cave, which we came across in a tour of the nightlife after checking out a solid two-person 80’s cover band in a German cuisine spot. It seemed alright, with free promotional mixed drinks that compensated for otherwise American prices, and then the late hours approached and the atmosphere changed. The pole dancers came out and the college kids and the coked-out bodybuilding Arian ponytail in tight leather were drowned out by the other usuals. Picture the stereotypical male tourist: balding, beer gut, polo, Rolex, slacks or khakis, a chain necklace snagged on white chest hair. Now picture a young, middle-of-the-road Asian prostitute. No, the heels need to be more obnoxious than that. Okay, good. Now picture dozens of them crammed onto a dim lit dance floor, the male bobbing his head and shifting his stomach from side to side with flagging enthusiasm, hands held limp over his head, glancing to you occasionally, perhaps for some affirmation that he’s doing this partying thing correctly, while the prostitute stares at the ceiling and gyrates against him on repeat, looking down to check in with the other girls prowling through. During our visit Cooper and I both received several offers for sex and drugs, one man being so bold as to give me his daytime business card. It really surprises me that some of these guys can be so forward about their ventures when the consequences in China can be so severe (execution, for instance). We left after one woman locked her legs around Cooper and grabbed me by the shirt in an attempt to force multiple glasses of straight Jack Daniels into us and impair our judgment enough to make offers.

Oddly enough we would return here at the end of the next night after a number of conversations among a group of people that collectively were on the verge of exploding into a script-ready drama, the finer points of which I won’t reproduce here out of respect. At the end of a pretty in-depth and tear-stained description of suicide’s merits and the anguish of moral responsibility one man in the group had a little opinion/advice for me that went something like this: don’t get stuck here. Life is entirely too easy. If you don’t really want to learn Chinese, you don’t have to. If you don’t really want to work, you don’t have to. If you don’t really want to try, you don’t have to. People will offer you all sorts of opportunities – they’re all losers. They can give you nothing. If you don’t pursue what you really want now you will hate yourself for it as long as you live. The door is closing. So, I was thoroughly depressed, Cooper was thoroughly inebriated (he got to talk about rock music), exactly one guy from the group we encountered wanted to party even harder since it was his fortieth birthday, so I took him to The Cave, got him lost in the fray, and Cooper and I got back to our room. Usually in China’s cities I just feel inferior because I’m surrounded by people who are multilingual and professionally secure, some of them my age, but that was one of those especially bad nights where you get a little too close to the fact that nobody really knows what they’re doing.

So, that’s Guangzhou. Now all that’s left is Ji’An. Take a break, dear reader.

Fun Fact Time!

*Did you know that China has an unusually high rate of cesarian sections? Often they are requested by mothers who have been misinformed that it is safer than a natural birth, are concerned that the damages of birth will inhibit their marital bliss, or wish their child to be born on a specific, more auspicious date!

*Upon a recent census, approximately 40,000 relic sites in China have straight up disappeared! This is largely attributed to China’s wild construction boom!

Our TOEFL class had a new edition halfway through the semester. I was asked to interview and evaluate students testing to enter St. Andrew’s University in Scotland. One did so-so, one did horribly, one ran away, and Liu had been reading a textbook on behavioral cognitive therapy in its original English in parallel with his Chinese translation just because he was interested. Guess who I recommended. I also suggested he show up for our TOEFL classes, which backfired a little bit. Nobody’s perfect, and the flattering term for Liu might be ‘eager’. His English was textbook, and that cuts both ways. He would always answer questions almost immediately, to the detriment of other students’ participation, and argue with Cooper about word usage, since he doesn’t have a good grasp of idiom or semantic broadening. He would also show up to my room pretty regularly between 20:00 and midnight to review lessons and ask more general questions, like ‘what are you doing’ or ‘what’s this’. After I got back to Beijing, I got a phone call; he’d purchased a RMB 1,000 plane ticket for me to Nanchang at 8:00 the next day. I was going to spend Spring Festival with him in his hometown! I went since I didn’t have particularly big plans for my time in Beijing, rural areas tend to hold a more traditional celebration than the urban ‘fireworks and dinner’ approach, and RMB 1,000 is a lot of money. In retrospect I also saved a ton of money on food; one farewell night out with teachers on my return to Beijing cost me about as much as I’d spend in a week in Linchuan.

Liu’s parents were divorced, and he was living with his mother closer to the city centre in one of those ghost apartments while his father and sister lived further out in the countryside. I found out where his nervous energy came from; his mother was a little bit stereotypical, endlessly grinning and screaming regardless of emotional state, telling us what we were going to do each day and when. That’s not to say I had work; Liu may have been doing plenty of chores leading up to the holiday, but I was living pretty high on the hog. It’s simply that the various forms of hospitality weren’t optional. I woke up at 8:00 to synth-backed nasal shrieking with the speakers at maximum volume for breakfast. If she suspected I was still hungry, I had to eat more. Whatever was left, Liu ate. There’s no such thing as leftovers. If she suspected I was cold, after breakfast I had to boil my feet and wear a blanket. If she suspected I was still uncomfortable, Liu had to take me outside for basketball or a walk in the park or to meet family friends. Liu was surprisingly good at hoops. The kid could drive, and he was better at getting nothing but net than he was at working off the backboard. We stopped to pump up the ball at the shop of one of his old extracurricular teachers. He was a jack-of-all-trades mechanic, disabled after a shock from a collapsing power line paralyzed him from the waist down, and held several patents for electric animal traps. The irony of this was not lost on him. He was as hospitable as everyone else in town, inviting us for dinner on two occasions and holding some conversation with me, mediated by Liu. I guess he took a liking to me for my ‘mentality’, saying I differed favorably from his expectations of an American, and he gifted me some of his old clothes, since a new wardrobe is customary for the Spring Festival. During a requested photo with him, I noticed that he and his family said ‘qie zi’, which means ‘eggplant’ and sounds similar to ‘cheese’. I had to explain why this was amusing to me, since the whole point of saying ‘cheese’ is to approximate a smiling face, and the face you make when you say ‘zi’ (picture the ‘u’ in ‘put’) is entirely different.

Guests would also arrive at Liu’s mother’s house regularly for dinner parties and subsequent conversations over tea. Finally, through dumb luck, I managed to beat a Chinese person at xianqi, which surprised everyone since the uni student in question was an advanced student of the game. My Achilles’ heel in this game is a loathsome piece called the ‘pau’, or cannon, which moves like the rook/‘che’ but can only capture if there is a piece between it and its target. They are critical pieces, and I have no established strategies for them, so my success depends entirely upon capturing the opponents’ early. This is highly unlikely in most games, because as far as I can tell the two best openings involve quickly placing them in highly defended positions that also lock up the opponent’s side of the board. In the case at hand I managed to pull a double fork on both of his cannons due to an oversight on his part. Later on he helped Liu with his Kung Fu and taught me a couple steps, and then Liu’s mother asked for a presentation on American culture, which I just so happened to have handy. She had tons and tons of questions, which was interesting for me but agonizing for Liu as a translator, since his mother knows no English (my name was ‘mai zi’ – lit. ‘wheat segment’) and speaks faster than any other mortal creature. She was particularly interested in the average spending per household on vehicles and gas, my slides on the socioeconomic causes for gang violence in South Central L.A., or as she referred to it ‘the black’, and whether Japan was going to attack China again. When faced with her flat-out fascination over gang violence as a phenomenon, I wondered if she or Liu had heard of the colossal Chinese-based Triad, but that’s one of those things I don’t bring up in China, like Tibet or Tiananmen Square or the rural uprising in Wukan this past December. I did mention these to Liu once in confidence and his jaw hit the floor. I don’t just refrain from bringing them up because of controversy though – talking to someone about their country’s politics can easily leak into the more presumptuous act of telling someone about their country’s politics, which I’m absolutely unqualified for and would just make me look like a jackass.

Nearer to the holiday we began taking trips further and further out to survey Liu’s mother’s property. She brings home the bacon through managing two big investments. One is in farmland which the government pays her and the actual laborers to convert into forest due to a surplus and skyrocketing environmental concerns. The other is in a transport ship for sand dredged out of Ji’An’s many lakes, sold off to construction companies. The visit to the farmland was pretty straightforward, but the ship visit was an eventful one. I wore dress clothes because I thought we greeting the ship on its maiden arrival – I didn’t realize we were actually boarding the ship to help tow a dredger ashore, nor did I expect that we would get marooned on a sandbank halfway through. This might have been the first time the ship was arriving at this shore under this ownership, but it was apparent that it was quite old, a monolith of rust with planks laid over the several areas where the floor had completely eroded. It had also been damaged and delayed by a collision with a dredger on its course to here. Liu did considerably more work than me – I mostly held lines down with my feet, cleared the slack away so nobody got dragged under if an anchor slipped, and looped things around other things without tying any actual knots. Liu had been forced to pay such visits to ships since childhood in order to inspire him to never stop studying.

Once we were back on dry mud we grabbed a rooster, threw it in the trunk, and took the crew of three out to dinner. One worker angrily related their journey’s woes. Extortion is common out there; men at dams impose exorbitant fees for passage should the spirit move them, oil suppliers charge whatever they feel like, and when the transport bumped a dredger there was plenty of argument – the transport crew claimed the damage amounted to about RMB 500, while the dredger crew demanded RMB 60,000. Liu’s mother is currently agonizing over how to pay the latter. She has been concerned for a while – she had the heat in the apartment turned off, which is unfortunate when your winter policy is ‘open all the doors and windows to keep the air fresh’. Everybody was short on money after the voyage. The man across from me had some shady debts, and complained that if he ran into so-and-so down such-and-such dark alley he had no choice but to kill him. The third man leaned back and napped for most of the meal. He was owed 10,000 RMB by his manager as a Spring Festival bonus and the guy wasn’t paying up, so he wasn’t sure what to tell the wife and kids. Liu’s mom spent the night at his place helping him negotiate.

Somewhere in there I attended a wedding, visited Ji’An’s ancient island schoolhouse, stumbled on a carousel with a bodhisattva in the middle out in the woods, made jiao zi and ‘glue pudding’ (recipe in the photos), and celebrated the Festival Eve with Liu’s mechanics teacher. Liu and I also decorated the door for the season – it gets a little tricky, since different banners need to be placed in different locations according to their final tone. By this point my camera had gotten pretty senile, so there were many times when it just decided it was out of power independent of reality and shut down for a few hours, hence the disappointing lack of photography beyond this point. At the end of my visit I stayed in the hometowns of Liu’s parents; first his mother’s and then his father’s. Family is a big to-do in China period, and especially on Spring Festival. You will visit your relatives. Liu’s family members and their friends often suggested the West and East had a very different view of family, and I have to agree, unlike that time it was posed that the Chinese language was superior to English in its nuance and range of emotional expression. Watching T.V. for the Spring Festival countdown a man performed a ditty translated as “I Want to Go Home” about how he wanted to go home and the camera cut to a crowd of grown men weeping openly. The fact that I laughed at the whole thing may be proof enough of the former suggestion. Then again, translation is difficult. Liu laughed so hard he cried when he read some professional translations of Li Bai into English. I do have a huge personal shortcoming in that listening to any language besides English, from vespers to haikus, I have a lot of difficulty taking it seriously.

Liu’s mother’s hometown was in an ancient village, famous as the site of Mao’s February 7th Land Law committee on the execution of tens of thousands of abusive landlords and the redistribution of the farmland property to laborers. It was also instrumental in the planning of the Red Army’s defense against KMT attacks on CPC territories. Aside from the committee buildings, their attendant exhibits, and the temple near the family house, I spent most of my time resting by the coal fire or playing with animals. How many times will I be able to speak in Chinese while using my chicken voice and demonstrating the bird’s ability to keep its head in a fixed position to children? Along the balcony of the temple a door had been propped open, and I could see a mound of baskets suspended by poles inside. Liu explained that this was the skeleton of the dragon dance costume, stripped and awaiting future use. According to him, one segment of that dragon could weigh as much as fifty pounds after preparation. When it was going to be used was as of yet uncertain; at some point it had to be donned and carried past every house in the community before being brought to another temple to meet the other idols.

After a day in the village, we headed off to meet Liu’s father and his family. They were a great group to hang out with, and better understood where I was coming from. They took the time to speak slowly to me so I could make sense of half of it and exhaust my vocabulary of around a hundred words before resorting to English, which everyone knew bits and pieces of. They then moved on to some more substantial topics than I was used to – why doesn’t the U.S. meet its own international demands, why is the public reluctant to accept a Chinese language requirement in its universities…stuff I didn’t have a good answer for, or at least not a direct one. I was surprised to hear about the latter topic – what is going on in U.S. news right now?

The walk up the nearby mountain was about five hours, and it really was a shame that my camera was being so picky because it was a fantasy realized. The range had just received a brisk frost that crystallized in all sorts of ways on the different plantlife, fat clusters, spines, sideways streaks, brittle curls. The bamboo trees sunk towards the ground from the weight of the ice, forming archways, and beyond the cliffs the tiers of rice fields framed by frost became stairways into the clouds that flooded the valleys. When the path disappeared and the way became steeper we clutched at stiffened boughs hanging overhead. The wind at the peak swept away the sound of firecrackers and a dog inside the nearby Taoist temple as we cracked open the frozen gate. You get the idea.

Liu’s father had fun facts to share along the way between snowball fights. Until recently the village in these mountains was keeping it pretty old school; they still dig out the mountainside for grain storage, insulated with grasses. There used to be a lot of concern over tigers, and poisonous snakes are still a problem. The word for firecrackers, ‘bao zhu’, means ‘bursting bamboo’. Firecrackers were the preferred tiger deterrent way back when, but since communities such as this one were too poor to afford them they found that splitting bamboo or smacking two segments of it together made a very similar sound, and did that instead. Liu’s father (who also prefers to be called Liu, last names being first) makes animal traps out in the mountain’s forest with the bamboo in the summer, bending a tree down and securing it with a snare so that an animal passing through will be flung up into the canopy, dangling by its ankle. He and his family make all their own meals.

That night I came down with a really bad case of food poisoning, but I was convinced to get out of bed to visit another temple before we left the next day. It wasn’t as sombre an affair as at the mountainpeak, but there was a slight sense of disappointment. A large bonfire was being held inside before the altar to appease the local deities after the fact that there would be no dragon dance this year. Everyone in the village is expected to participate in the events, but in recent years the younger generations have moved away or lost interest. Sure enough, when I got back from the temple visit the teens of the family were watching T.V. and Liu was outside with the children testing out a remote controlled helicopter. He told me he’s never participated in one, although he remembers chasing after the dancers as a child.

The next day we said our goodbyes. Liu’s father gave me his number in case I’m ever in Guangzhou, where he works, and some of the other relatives loaded me down with dried sweet potato. I got a fair bit of reading done on the train, making it from Proteus to Lestrygonians in Ulysses, and by 4:00 a.m. I was back in Beijing. I’ve just got a couple days of teaching ahead of me, hopefully managing to get a new string peg, camera, and duffle bag, and then it’s off to Taiyuan.

~m

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