Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Email 5

1) The last few days Ive been in ShanXi province, traveling with the rents. Adventures aplenty! a) I spent the earlier parts of my train ride to Taiyuan brows furrowed listening to the Scottish accent- Its really quite pleasant. I ended up chatting with a couple of people traveling around the world! What a thrill. The later parts were spent sitting up waiting for people on the train to just quit snoring. Aside from the chorus of bullfrogs, I find it easy to sleep to the lull of the sometimes gentle sometimes not rhythms of train on tracks, like jazz. It reminds me of a Michael Stillman poem--
In Memorium John Coltrane
Listen to the coal Rolling,

rolling through the cold steady rain,
wheel on wheel,

listen to the turning of the wheels this night black as coal dust,
steel on steel,

listen to these cars carry coal,
listen to the coal train roll.

b) Tour bus drivers seem to all eat a nice big bowl of crazy for breakfast, washed down with a glass of "Im not afraid to die" But regardless, the first thing I noticed about ShanXi (not to be confused with ShaanXi) as I hurtled through on a gigantic tour bus? The mesmerizingly constant crops of sunflowers and corn stretching on for miles. I think it has to do with the fact that ShanXI doesnt get too much rain, and these plants are okay without. Yellow corona bursts. Standing tall and vigorous, they seemed to emulate the Terra Cotta Soldiers that I had seen less than a week before.

c) In the states, the obsession with youth and ageless skin has almost become a paranoia-- but I
was struck the the wrinkles in the faces I saw here-- like someone took string to tawny clay, still wet.

d) Group tourism in China is hot, sweaty and all in all, pretty irritating. If ever there is an "us vs them" mentality, it really comes up and gleams through here, when it comes to things like photo ops, and sitting down to eat first. Really ridiculous. Whats refreshing though, is seeing how forced togetherness (we all have to eat together to save time) over food manages to alloy all these crazy metals together.
Went to the shooting location where Zhang Yimou's Raise The Red Lantern was filmed in a town named PingYao. Movie magic it was-- at that point, it was just about the first Chinese movie I really saw. A beauty that was painful and wistful. The actual place looked all but desecrated.

f) Stayed in a noisy hotel room after Mommy Daddy and I toasted our adventures with some YanJing beer. The hotel was across the street from the ridiculously bustling and noisy train station. Perfect. That night I slept beneat whirring neon lights honking cars and chattering people. Taiyuan is kind of like New York City :) in that I can sleep to its sounds.

g) I breathed in air so gorgeously clean it could not dream to exist in Beijing at Wu Tai Shan,
home to a number of Buddhist temples and monasteries, Tibetan included. I myself am quite unversed in said religion, but just could not believe that clear brisk and strong air like that existed in China. It felt cool and familiar, like an LA Thanksgiving (without global warming).
Architectural marvels are plentiful in China-- we went up into Xuan Kong Si, a "Hanging" monastery. (Easily found on Google). It was built in the mountains some 1500 years ago.. and is still there. Still hanging. Still monasterical. :D Its pretty terrifying and wondrous and amazing to imagine-- how people did it.. who could really know? That and the YunGang grottoes took up our day. But wow.

Email 4

1) The last few days I have been in Xian, where the Terra Cotta Soldiers are housed. After a whirlwind type Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, I just got off the train and am back in Beijing. Thoughts:
a) The majesty of the soldiers engulfed me. Maybe majesty is not the right word. Maybe the "gargantuan-ness" of the whole situation dumbfounded me. I forget the exact numbers but each soldier is more than life sized, and different, from the lift of their eyebrows to the curls of their lips, to the position in which their hand clutches a weapon to shield the dead emperor from harm. Basically, he started thinking about his death right as he was beginning to rule. Is that morbid, or just plain pragmatic?

b) Apparently, Mr Yang, the villager who found the soldiers when trying to dig a well was at the site, and if you bought a book for 150 RMB, you could take a picture with him. I did not buy the book, and I did not take the picture. Im not too sure I was completely convinced. But maybe it's like Santa Claus. People believe in things so that other people can get money and feed their families, and so on.

c) We went to Hua Qing Chi, where a famous concubine bathed in the hot springs...and where Chiang Kai-shek was shot at. (Xi-An Incident) I'd never taken pictures of so many bullet holes. This was my favorite event that day-- interesting that two such historical figures dwelled in such a place.

d) It is said that something over 70 emperors are buried in Xian, or at least the Shaanxi province, because the feng shui is wonderful. I smell a new Tomb Raider movie!!

e) I have fallen desperately in love with the Shaanxi dialect. There is something so song-like about it, and I could very possibly just listen to it all darned day. Its more gutteral and soft palate-ish than Mandarin-- some sounds remind me of Persian. Either way, I have taken numerous videos of it being spoken.

f) I have a strange enjoyment for talkative taxi drivers. In Xian, it's much cheaper to take cabs places-- and I have thoroughly loved sitting and listening to them.
g) Traveling with Nancy Wang has been both surreal and incredibly wonderful--It's such a joy to take on a new city with friends. Many times during my stay in Xian, I honestly could not believe that I was there with her! What fun!

h) I rode the train by myself on the way back. To be honest, I was apprehensive. All the stories that my relatives told about girls being kidnapped and worse played into my mind, but I have to say that it felt pretty darned safe. Again, thanks to Chinese school and my parents, I manage not to sound like a complete foreigner, and was struck by the easy cameraderie of people in an overnight train. Played card games for 2 hours with men who upon first glance, were kind of scary looking. Pleasantly got back to Beijing. Now, Beijing things.

2) Went to a flea market and spent some 5 hours there. No kidding. 5 hours. But I have decided that I would like a victrola for my home. It wasnt actually the jewelry, or pottery that I liked best, rather I preferred the old telephones, and typewriters.

3) My milonga experience--that of which Im sure you're dying to know about.. was "eh". I imagine its because 1--it is a pretty newly established milonga and 2--it was raining the hour before. But either way, I made a few new friends over a Tsingtao beer, and got to practice leading in a big mirrored, practically empty room. Pretty darned okay.

4) Got a copy of Barack Obama's autobiography for the train and ended up finishing half of it before I even got on. His writing is incredibly calm, yet passionate-- what a guy! I'll have more thoughts on it soon.

Email 3

Which fish would you rather eat?!

1) I am just not used to seeing.. un-neutered dogs. People here own small dogs. Dachsunds, Bichon Frises, and of course Pekingese. There doesnt seem to be an initiative to lop off the reproductive bits of the animals, but then I figure-- these animals dont really get to run away and proliferate anyway. Thought that was a funny little anecdote

2) Now on the people proliferating: I dont think theres anything like a CVS where the drugstore is separate from food items. So, condoms are just next to soaps and toothbrushes and other such things. Condoms in China cost 41 RMB (average) for 12. Basically, that's about 8 bucks. It seems even MORE stupid not to use protection. An uncle and I were talking about prostitutes in mining regions in poorer areas of China-- there ought to be some sort of initiative for condom usage. Will think about it more.

3) In the States, I realized that first names are generally more "in common" than last names. Meaning, we differentiate, like, "Which Mike?" "Oh, Mike.. Baker" In China, its more like, "Which Dr. Liu?" "Oh.. Liu ZhengGuo". Thought about that when I sat in on rounds in the radiation oncology department yesterday.

4) My medical Especially in the realm of oncology and technical things, such as "CT"...but cancer is devastating in any language. Today's rounds were strictly in the chest-- esophageal, lung mostly. Saw one patient whose lung cancer had metastasized to his brain, which manifested as a (plegia)? of the left side of his face. Upon neurological exam, you could tell the deficits came from the facial nerve mostly. But his eyes moved with the following of the doctor's finger, and there was no ipsilateral deviation of the tongue (which means that the hypoglossal nerve was okay). I breathed thanks to Arnie Scheibel and Neuroanatomy 102. But the patient-- looked just so tired. Radiation is tough and wears on the body so.

5) If all goes well, tomorrow will be my first milonga experience. When dancing in the States its very rare that people invite others to dance using the "cabaceo"... an initiation protocol using well directed eyes. Im not sure in China what a smile and good morning in general during the day means. In the US, its a pleasantry, but I noticed that I sort of avert my eyes. When I look straight at people, I never see theirs.

6) I adore the subway. I think I've said this before, but theres no feeling quite like stepping down into the subway station into the cool, kissable below, the dark, sordid underbelly of a city.

7)In Chinese there is an idiom, which translates into "People mountain, people sea" literally. It basically means that people are so densely packed they constitute the magnitude of mountains, and vastness of oceans. Beijing is ridiculous in this way. It took almost 30 minutes to go about half a mile through WangFuJing, a main shoppiing area. People dont heed traffic signs. Cars dont heed traffic signs. Its really, more than anything a big ridiculous game of chicken. Crossing a road. :D

Email 2

1) Karaoke is serious business here in Beijing, complete with buffet style snacks/drinks (non-alcoholic) and percussion instruments (tambourines, etc) I wonder how to say "maracas" in Mandarin. I went with some 30 of my mom's friends-- these are people she hadn't seen for some 40 years. During the Cultural Revolution in China, she went to the Chinese countryside, as mandated by Mao, and ended up becoming intensely fast friends with her compadres- If you were to ask me to find a group of this many people 40 years from now.. I have to say, Im not sure that I could, reason being that there really isnt a bond as strong as that between those you have suffered physical exhaustion with. In America, possibly college friends would fit that description, but truly, it was moving to see all of them together.

1a) The Chinese lifestyle sometimes w
orries me. Karaoke is never done standing, much unlike the situation at my favorite K-Ok spot-- the Gaslite. After a large meal, people go to karaoke. And after that, they do some other sitting activity. It becomes kind of like the US where a certain group of people are quite sedentary out of economic mobility. It seems that the poor are really the ones whose bodies might benefit. There's so much food everywhere-- it sickens me to see all the KFCs and McDonalds. I'll think more about this one.

2) Last night my parents and I went to the RenMinDaHuiTang (The Great Hall of The People) for a concert. I've always appreciate
d Chinese folk music, but last night was more than wonderful, to be there with my parents. My dad has always been more of the music afficionado, between my parents, and it was such a lovely experience to witness him enjoying the performance.

3) I stuffed my face with about a pound of dumplings today. I made about 3, I ate about 30.

4) Went to the Olympics-made-famous Birds Nest and the Water Cube 2 nights ago- quite a sight.

5) Something heartbreaking: This morning on the bus I offered an old man my seat. I've written before about old people and buses, but today he said to me, that he felt badly about going out of the house, afraid of "tian ma fan" which basically means, "being a burden" Thought about it a good deal.

6) Something musically miraculous happened-- One of my favorite songs on the iPod shuffle-- Better Get Hit In Your Soul. Although its said to exude the mood and and mood swings of a Sunday Black Baptist Church service, it's always been my big city song, rumbling of cement pavements and traffic lights.. I was walking through Beijing and as the song was playing, a construction worker's hammer became a perfect metronome for the song. Incredible. My face probably glowed with delight.


So basically, for a month in China, I had no facebook, no blogger, and very little internet. What I did have, was food, family, and INCREDIBLE FUN! But with what internet I did have, I sent a series of emails, numbered with thoughts and observations on the motherland. Now that Im back, and battling a vicious case of jet lag, I figure my time is best used updating said blog.

Email 1:

Thought maybe you wouldn't mind hearing a few thoughts of mine as my first of four weeks in China draws to a close.. Forgive the mass-email format of the letter, please!!

1) My internet access has been sparse and spotty. For this reason, I havent quite been good about sending emails. I'd love to know what you're thinking and doing and what not!

2) Public transit is..wonderful. Getting on a bus or train in Beijing now gives me quite the feeling of being in New York City-- its easy breezy and beautiful to zip off to various locales. Knowing the language is a plus..thanks to all those years in Chinese school. I think I'll try to spend a day just riding buses. Plus, now it's incredibly easy with digital cards that you can just swipe! Obviously my dad is very worried about this since he still thinks Im a dumbass. One of the more wonderful things about Beijing is its general respect for the elderly. I almost cried on the bus one day when I saw someone offer their seat to an old man. There's a certain sweet nostalgia about older Chinese people-- maybe the way they joke about poverty, or gap toothed smiles, and still-wide eyes. It's a knowing, and a sincerity and depth that people can only exude when theyre quite young, or very old.

3) In the summer, Beijing sees a number o
f intensely cathartic summer rains, where the sky will ferociously outburst torrents of rain and then quit-- almost like a child when he first falls down. It wails for maybe 15 minutes and then its as if the clouds get distracted. Maybe I'm getting older, but I find it quite moving. Other than those (which provide for pretty cool air), it's been sticky. Stick-to-your-ribs type sticky. I used to wonder why my relatives weren't big on hugs. (As you know, Im a champion hugger!) I now have come to believe that its always a combination of things-- among them disgust for intense heat and adhesive sweat. Makes sense.

4) Don't worry too much for me, b
ut from the first full day we were in Beijing, I have had at least one alcoholic beverage. Its a pain to explain to restaurants that you want ice cold water, (that of which is a given in the States as you know) so "beer" is just as easy to say. I've also managed to imbibe some Chinese red wine-- which is abnormally sweet, and something called "er guo tou" --distilled from sorghum. Something like 46% alcohol. In my book, just a bit short of rubbing alcohol. And with liquor comes immense amounts of food.. seafood, innards, etc-- It makes me wonder and quite worry about the cholesterol levels of Chinese people. Or at least, rich Chinese people. Here, Grandpa and I are sharing our first of many beers.

5) Food is so manageable price wise that it seems economically dumb not to eat. My favorite stuff however, is still the street food.. equivalent to the pretzels, hotdogs and hallal of NYC. I've taken a number of pictures just of the dishes I've eaten. I've managed to develop a taste for frog. :)

6) Something bothersome-- it seems that this younger generation of Chinese people (in Beijing, at least) carry a most intensely self righteous sense of entitlement. I've discussed this a bit with an uncle of mine and we made mention of the fact that people born after 1980 in China are all only children. All sights: fiscal, emotional, etc are set on this one kid- in regard to getting into college, and having their success realized. There's an immense pressure, and it maybe translates into other
spheres as well. At the Shanghai airport, I waited well over 20 minutes standing at a station to check my email while people absolutely ignored any semblance of a line. 4/5 of these people on the computers were kids who were playing World of Warcraft. I notice this too in a cousin of mine too. Maybe it comes from their parents' generation, having to share everything. I think there needs to be some sort of social volunteering initiative in China. I'll think more about this one and report back.

7) On dancing. Apparently Argentine tango is not a big thing in Beijing. A contact of mine said that it was a community of maybe 100, most of whom are foreigners. Not that I mind, of course. I'm going to my first Beijing milonga on Saturday, I hope. Dancing, or rather, social partnered dancing, is not something terribly ingrained into mainland culture of the Han Chinese (meaning, there are a number of minority groups who do it from a young age)..which is probably why I took to Middle Eastern and Latin American cultures so easily. I think I'll try to go to a salsa thing outside too, this weekend. I'll have to see about the hip swiveling abilities of my countrymen!

8) Haggling. Ah. Well-- It's hard not to. After 4 years of college and learning about outsourcing and witnessing how poor people can be-- I had resolved to not haggle, and just pay the price given. But it seems as much a cultural thing as an economic thing. I've managed to become pretty good at it, over the years. Wonderful.

9) My parents and I have taken walks just about every morning in Beijing- its just about the only time that we can, (such that the temperature is bearable). It's pretty spectacular. Interestingly, I bump heads with my father much more than I have with my mother (not literally) this trip.

10) Went on a run in Beijing in the morning-- it doesnt seem like something that a lot of people do. I really dont generally like running-- but in urban settings it can be incredibly enlivening. On really hot days, I do some yoga and manage to perspire profusely without trying-- its a spectacular season for sweating!

11) Tomorrow Im going to walk around with the nice people from the radiation oncology department at the cancer hospital where my mother and grandmother worked. I imagine I'll have a lot to learn about patient care in a different cultural situation, and cant wait!

12) I've been waking up at 4AM. Just about every day. One of these days we'll go to Tiananmen Square and watch the soldiers hoist the flag up. That's about the only time I feel safe enough to ride a bike in Beijing.

Other than that, Im doing quite well. Usually I break out in hives, but thanks to a spectacular suggestion from a certain doctor friend of mine, I have been pretty okay. Mosquitos seem to have bothered me less this year than most. I'm getting used to being around such a large extended family and focusing on eating everything I possibly can! Will return to you a blimp! :D