Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hearts and Arteries

I just returned from Xi-an, the original heart of China - before things went coastal.

Xi-an beats out an irregular rhythm of ancient Terracotta tombs and modern sprawl. Late at night, it pulls its rhythms from the glowing red Muslim market just below the Drum Tower. There - surrounded by ox horn combs, warrior trinkets, caged crickets, and lamb stew - sits a woman who nightly creates her own heartbeat for the city. Pulling a mallet against the ridged wooden back of a hand-carved frog, she beats out: Cr-crk Cr-crk Cr-crk.

Train tracks pump fresh blood in and out of this ancient heart once a day from Chengdu. At the train station, I was swept up in the jostling current as I joined the crowded platform for Xi-an-bound passengers. Our bodies were pressed tight into too little space, and our belongings swam around each other. At 1:30, the gates opened. Bags and babies and bowls of noodles were thrust over heads and between legs as the current of bodies streamed forward into the train cars.

On the way back, I learned how lucky I was to have snagged a "sleeper seat" for the initial 16 hour ride into Xi-an. In a sleeper, you can lie down in a small cot stacked under two others, with just enough room to sit up and look out the window at the rice paddies flashing by.

On the return trip to Chengdu, I had a ticket for the "hard seat" cabin, where spots on benches crowded into the small car had been auctioned for 90 RMB a piece. I hustled to my bench spot in order to claim it and some baggage space as well. I watched as 80 more people managed to fit their bags overhead and squeeze onto the benches. An ever-increasing flow streamed into the car along with luggage, and children, and indignant, pointy elbows. More streamed in, and more. Though the flow could no longer sit down, (the initial 80 could barely fit on the benches), it would not stop. The flow crowded into all the spaces left and continued to squeeze farther and farther in as the car's capacity doubled and tripled before my eyes.

"My" bench was no longer mine, but also seemed to belong to a middle-aged woman, her daughter, an elderly man sitting on a bucket, and a toddler who had begun to cry after soiling herself within the first five minutes of the ride. The unlucky passenger stuck between the soiled child and me nearly vomited. Concerned about my own ability to make it to the toilet (which was 15 meters and 50 aisle-blocking people away), I leaned over and asked my friend Lin Fang about when and how she planned to go to the bathroom during the next 16 hours. She said she didn't plan on it, and - glancing at my stockpile of bottled water - suggested that I shouldn't either. The bathroom was yet another area of prime real estate and, she continued, it's not uncommon for people to sit in the sinks.

Any - and all - leftover spaces in the vessel had been sold to willing blood. The cabin reeked of sweat, urine, and pungent spiced meat around mealtimes.

Though our 16 hours in a locomotive suggested travel, we were all stuck in a perpetual stand-still. The train pushed and pumped forward, but bodies just creaked and moaned, none able to counter the train's forward motion with any movement of their own. I had read in my guidebook about the mysteries of Xi-an, the delapidated heart of China, but from within the sardined cabin I found myself more taken by this heart's very clogged artery.

...back in Chengdu now, continuing Chinese tutoring at a break-neck pace. My tutor is a very patient woman.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

An Unfamiliar Wedding

Like Auntie and Uncle Wang, we'll start the day with a bit of housekeeping.
If you've written a comment (or tried to), I apologize. The comment section of the blog was temporarily screwy. Thanks to my tinkering father and copy-pasting mum, it is back online. You can post freely, and I can respond personally to each one. Responses to prior comments can be found in the comment section for "Stubbed Toe Wisdom". After this, they'll appear in whichever comment section they are responding to. And I'd be happy to hear your responses to...

Pig's feet. I ate them this weekend. Also: Cow's tongue. The veins of something I cannot describe, along with its roasted skin. A turtle.

Yup, you guessed it - I went to a wedding! It was as atypical a wedding as I might be able to imagine. No church (not a big surprise), no procession, no rows of dressed-up relatives and friends holding hankies. No vows, no ring exchange, no "I do's". No. This wedding - like many modern chinese weddings - took place in a restaurant.

To get there, the Wangs and I walked a sweaty mile, took a bus through the city, and dodged some rick-shaws as we crossed the road to the restaurant. We were forcefully escorted towards the bride and groom. The couple smiled at us, yelled at us, pushed candy into our hands and hurriedly pulled us towards them for an over-rehearsed photography session. Upstairs, a large reception room was full of un-dressed up people talking loudly, drinking, spitting sunflower husks this way and that, and taking occasional breaks to toast the bride and groom and eat enormous piles of food. Enter, stage right: Pig's feet soup. "Good for your skin," the pimpled girl next to me explained, ladling more into her rice bowl.

In-between the eating, toasting, and cigarettes came Ma-Jiang. As I stood next to one of the dozens of green playing tables scattered throughout the room, I asked "Jing, what is Ma-Jiang like?". What had been intended as an innocent question turned into a 4 hour tutorial by all the Wang women. Here is what I learned:

This Domino-esque game consists of one green felt-covered table, 100-some tiles, and 3 suits. Through an elaborate shuffling process in which tiles are stacked, re-stacked, moved and divied, you get 13 tiles. (Except sometimes when you get 14). Each turn you pick up a mystery tile and throw out a less useful tile. The object of the game is to get all of your tiles into triplets and runs before anyone else does, sort of like Rummy. A few catches: you can only have two suits by the end of the game, you must watch the suits others are discarding in order to play defensively, and if you discard something that someone else can use to complete a triplet or quadruple of a tile, you'll owe them money when the game is over (in this friendlier case, we traded playing cards and "tsk's" rather than yuan).

You can witness Ma-Jiang veterans in their natural element - huddled around their green tables on sidewalks and under trees - on any given afternoon in Chengdu. Though known by foreign visitors, perhaps, as the old ladies' sport, I beg to differ. It is rough, it is fast, and it leaves little room for slow-judgement or error. The rest of the guests at the party emphasized this point by watching my moves closely over my shoulder, then correcting me loudly, explaining with fast Sichuan accents exactly what I had done wrong. Thankfully the tiles provided a visual reference, so I was able to follow along with most of these verbal assaults. By chance, I won a few rounds, but mainly I did fair-to-poor. That fact not-withstanding, I earned major points for grasping (barely) the rules of the game by the end of our marathon session.

Whew! 6 hours, two exotic meals, dozens of toasts (at the young women's table, we used orange soda rather than the hard alcohol at the men's tables), and 20 rounds of Ma-Jiang later, the wedding began to die down. We said our further congratulations to the exhausted bride and groom (both of whom had paused during the festivities to intervene in my Me-Jiang games when i made particularly bad moves), and walked towards the bus, then home.
Today Auntie Wang and Uncle Wang were reunited after his trip to Tibet. No big hugs or kisses, but when he saw she was folding laundry, he silently left the room where we were watching his vacation slideshow and held the hangers for her while she hung sheets. Ceremonies aside, unions can cross cultures fluidly.

p.s. Jackie - pictures coming soon. sadly, the camera forgot to come to the wedding.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Yesterday the sky turned grey and the trees starting dancing. Great kite-flying weather. From the wide window of our office I could see over the river below. Three retired men were out flying long-tailed kites, and from my vantage-point on the 9th story, they looked like scarves dancing above the city. Very Arabian.

Following that ominous sky was a huge storm. It began thrashing in the middle of the night, waking me up at 3am. It was one of those alarming - but exciting - leftover-from-the-typhoon-type storms with lots of thunder and lightning (very close to my window!) and rain pounding staccato rhythms on every hard surface. I sat up and watched it for awhile before going back to sleep. I woke up again to a softer pattering of drips from the roof, and bits of persistent light inching through the window.

Later in the morning, as I was padding through the kitchen, Auntie Wang grabbed me, pulled me to the front of the stove and thrust a pair of chopsticks in my hands. Through an elaborate dance of gestures, we established that I was in charge of cooking breakfast. Auntie Wang provided all the seasoning and spices (unmarked in interesting jars...i need to find out what those were!), and cooking tips (more emphatic gestures). I stirred the noodles in my pajamas while Auntie Wang smiled and tsked her tongue in approval as she leaned over and wiped up the water puddling by the door.

The rain was still splashing as my tutor and I walked together towards our daily lesson. She told me that the storm is part of a typhoon that hit her hometown yesterday. Grinning, she said that last year a typhoon took the roof off her house, and her father patched it in the sunshine the next day. I asked if her family would ever think of moving to a new (typhoon-free) city, and she said no, they love their home. Besides, the days after typhoons are always so beautiful.
Hadn't I noticed?

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

The Return of Meggy

18 hours of flight, 4 airports, a bevy of "interesting" seatmates and one ocean later, I've made it. I was greeted at the airport by three grinning members of my host family holding a large hand-written sign reading "MEG!" What a welcome.

Now I sit in the Wang's house at mid-day. Forest and Jing (host-sisters) have left with Uncle Wang for the morning. Auntie Wang is humming a warbly chinese tune and preparing lunch in the kitchen (my best guess based on the past few meals would be: rice! green beans! hot pickled beans! chicken! bony, bony fish! seaweed soup!) If we are having leftovers as well, we may have some of a new addition I discovered at breakfast: red-bean filled 'cinnamon rolls.' A bit of a shock to occidental taste-buds, but tasty.

Two surprising features of note thusfar:

1. Apparently, my chopstick use is quite advanced. (Bravo Mum and Dad for forcing them on me at a young age via bolgolge and raw garlic.) Forest commented in a complaining fashion that I use chopsticks more properly than she does, and couldn't I cut it out while we're in front of her mom?

2. Despite 18 years of verbal protest on my part, I have apparently returned to the name "Meggy". Though I introduce myself as Yang Meiqi, (sort of like a backwards China-fied version of my name, pronounced: "Yah-ng May Chee"), my family continues to call "Meggy" to breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Yang Meiqi has yet to receive an invitation.

I nearly signed on for an impromptu adventure to Tibet with Forest and Uncle Wang yesterday, only to be stopped by pesky visa laws that require a week of processing time for foreign visas. In retrospect, I suppose it is wise to work off the inter-continental jet-lag before adding on extreme changes in altitude. Ah well, they planted a germinating idea in my brain and I have the feeling that before the year is through I will be writing about yak-butter and wind-beaten prayer flags.

In the meantime, my chinese work-book calls, as does Auntie Wang. "Meggy! Lunch!"

Friday, August 03, 2007

Stubbed Toe Wisdom

I know that a big shift is coming. Bedtime came and went tonight, as my circadian rhythms fell to the way-side. My heart is beating faster, my mind is racing ahead - clear, like a a runner's high - while my body skeptically follows. Tonight, like several others over the last few years (the night of the move to Middlebury, the night before the semester in Senegal, the hours before walking across a stage with diploma in hand), I will remain awake.

Upstairs sit three suitcases. One contains clothes. The second, years supplies of all things hygienic: toothpaste, mouthwash, deodorant... The third, books and articles on the shifting winds of China's social entrepreneurs. (Oh! and a copy of Finding Nemo, for good measure). These suitcases will accompany me to Chengdu, China, and provide protection for spots of trouble along the journey. When the weather gets spotty, one will lend a jacket. When my mouth acts similarly, the second will help out with bit of floss. When my mind does the same, the third suitcase will hopefully come to the rescue with brilliant insights on microfinance, the wisdom of local metis, and the delicate intricacies of international multi-lateral relationships.


In reality, I know that one can't pack suitcases of local wisdom. What I've learned in classrooms has certainly shaped my ability to receive new information from the surrounding world, but neither the world nor the classroom belong in a book or in a suitcase, as neither is a static experience. Visceral, deep, surprising knowledge is the stuff the world is made of, and certainly the best tonic for "spotty mind". Perhaps, instead, book-filled suitcase #3 might lend real mind-renewing powers by covertly nudging me back into the lively streets of China. An inconvenient suitcase location and a quick stub of the toe can do wonders for growing wisdom.

Thus, As I exit my house in t-minus two hours (not to return for 365 days), I'll remind myself of the significant weight of each of these three pieces of luggage. Warm clothes for winter, clean soaps for my body, and a lead-filled case of books that will impart more and more wisdom as it is opened less and less.