Monday, November 12, 2007

Dual Lives

I'm sitting in Starbucks right now (Starbucks!) drinking a tiny little latte and using up their quick-as-a-bunny wireless connection. During the two months since I moved into my current apartment it has turned into something of a construction war-zone, so minor things like water, electricity, gas, and - most recently - internet tend to come and go as they please. Other things that leave at will: sidewalks, roads, man-size pot holes (I have not fallen in. Yet.), huge rubble piles, and screeching-slamming-something-MUST-be-dying-middle-of-the-night sounds.
Ahhhh mmmmm. Home. In any case, internet-less as we are, I venture to the nearby international haven of the frappuccino. If that is even a word.

I live a dual-life here, split between Chengdu-the-Booming-Metropolis and the earthy villages scattered around Dayi. In Chengdu I research, connect, fix visa issues (aiya!), do extreme bike-riding to and from the office, and indulge in such pleasures as coffee and hot showers. In Dayi, I listen and look and breathe in the slightly fresher air. I play with puppies and piglets. I interview potential microloan applicants. I marvel.


In Xian He, an old woman peels a green head-sized citrus fruit with her strong, weathered hands. She passes the sour chunks to the party of microloan researchers and village authorities standing in her courtyard then goes about her business feeding the rabbits, herding the piglets, and making whooping noises at the chickens. She is one of our loan applicants. She would like 2000 RMB (about $270) to expand her rabbit enclosure so that she can breed a few more rabbits. With luck and time, the effort will allow her to afford regular meat in her own diet.

Another man would like to use his $270 to invest in the village's communal bamboo factory. Faced with intense poverty and encroaching deforestation, he and twenty of his fellow villagers pooled their resources to create a system that would utilize one of their most abundant resources: thick-stalked bamboo, the local "weed" that shoots up everywhere and has a growth cycle of a mere 3 years. When chopped, sliced thin, woven, and pressed, the bamboo stalks make a sturdy plywood that rivals the strength of regular wood, and can be sold at a profit. Brilliant. Yes.

In between these site visits, we pause for lunch and card playing with the head of the village and the village accountant, both members of the communist party. We play "Struggle Against the Landlord", a favorite local game that involves two "family members" using their cards to struggle against the evil "landlord", who, of course, is given an unfair advantage (cultural relic, anyone?). The game is a cross between Poker, B.S., and a melodrama. We scream and scheme and slam our cards on the table with thwacks of our knuckles. Meanwhile, a live chicken suspended by its feet is carried into the kitchen. Later, it arrives on the table in three different dishes and a soup. Lunch.

So...yes, Starbucks. "I must be back in Chengdu," I think to myself. The clean wooden tables scattered with biscotti and business cards are quite the contrast from yesterday's ducks paddling through rice paddies. I didn't see the cow that my latte came from, nor did I discuss life-goals with the Barista.
Back to life #2.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Like a War... and a Waltz

Oh man, life is sweet. I mean really, really, knock-your-socks-off, head-over-heels, candy-apple-dripping sweet. Reasons:

1. Eaves-dropping on the rehearsal of a group of retired Chengdu musicians who have taken it upon themselves to preserve their local music tradition in the face of encroaching Taiwanese pop.

2. Bang! Bang! Bang! Go the giant painted drums. Then erhu enters, rich and flowing – I mistake it for a chorus of voices. A reeded trumpet and mini mouth-powered organs pulse along behind strange zig-zagged mandolins and a cello.
“What does this sound like to you?” He Bei asks me.
“Like a war”, I say, “…and a waltz.”

3. The first director is young and energetic. He demands attention by yelling and pointing and looking fiercely into his musicians’ eyes while he pauses the score. He winks. They start again, stronger.

4. The cellist looks like a lizard. He wears a blue cap over his taut, thin skin and peers up from behind his hand-written music. He is about two hundred years old and half the size of his cello.

5. The drummers are the same boys I met in middle school band. They stand in the back of the room and bang on cue, then smoke cigarettes and try to look like they own the joint.

6. An old, old, old man enters the room, (three hundred years old, maybe), and the energy changes. His entire wrinkled self is a smile. He takes his time walking to the podium, and the fierce director steps down. This new director is a Buddha. He is a Saint. He is absolutely, definitely, “chosen,” “enlightened,” and/or following “the way.” Or he's got some great skin cream - this man radiates goodness!

7. The buddha raises his small arms and they flop in the air the way a child’s might as she imitates a conductor. Swoosh. Swish. Swishity swoosh. His wrinkled wrists, arms, hips, and eyebrows all take their turns dancing out the opening measures. I am at a loss. Where is the beat? The musicians find it before I do and the waltzing war begins again to the rhythm of his smiling, swimming appendages.

8. Buddha grins. I inhale. The musicians play. They repeat this process every Tuesday and Thursday and I am invited.

...and a few more personal reasons why life is so divinely sweet:

being in love with someone in a nearby timezone (oh holy skype...)
parental units visiting oh-so-soon.
weekends full of cutting-edge intelligent female earth-shaking energy
the true ridiculous nature of this incredible year.

Santa's lap

The camera shutter snapped open and I stared back into it, tears brimming my lower lids. The kind assistant brushed my hair out of my eyes while helping me tilt my head slightly. She spoke words I couldn't understand as my cheeks became hot and wet. Everyone gave each other a look that said "maybe we should do this another time..."

Childhood memories of Santa's lap? I wish. No Ho-Ho-Ho-ing man sent me into this tizzy. Rather the, kindly staff of a Chinese visa office (location: my block, China), paid witness to this regressive event.

Staring down at the most recent rendition of my business reference, the visa officer looked at me with those "oh god, i'm so sorry i'm the one who has to say this" eyes and said (to Kate, who translated) "The first sentence is wrong. The paper is wrong. We need a new one."
The "new one," I learned, could not be phoned in or faxed or emailed.
It had to be hand-delivered. Again. From another town. Ok. I could handle that.
And I needed to get back on the bus right then to retrieve it. Ok, I could handle that too.
And it would cost 1500 RMB. Fine.
And we should probably just take the picture right then to get it out of the way. Fine, fine.
And...well...your head needs to be tilted a little more to the left and...

The tears start brimming. I am four years old again, on Santa's lap. I am excited to be there and I know this is important, but i can't understand what anyone is saying. Smile? Now?! This is scary!! I am confused, and why is that lady touching me??? The tears start flowing, and do not stop.

In China, I can connect with eyes but not many words. I am working with a toddler's vocabulary, and three months of straight-forward openness to every (in)experience has left me a little raw. In front of that camera lens and the unsuspecting visa staff, I finally took full ownership of what it means to employ a toddler's vocabulary, and wailed.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Men in Uniform

I'm losing respect for the uniformed guards of China.
I've always been one who smiles when she sees a policeman on the corner (order! security! someone to ask for directions!).  During the last few weeks, however, the uniformed men protecting the local establishments have done little to garner my respect. The vendors in these stories are neither the heroes nor victims of this story, rather, they are the canvas upon which the guards painted a portrait of the nature of their current profession. 

Case 1:
In Beijing I visited a fantastic market overflowing with silk paintings, ornate rusty red Tibetan chests, and Mao paraphernalia priced according to its relative location to the exit. (don't shop in the first aisle. they know you don't know the prices.)  Just outside this bustling bargaining market, I saw a few informal vendors trying to sell furs that were definitely illegal, and perhaps endangered.

One vendor carrying one basket of furs sprinted across the street, six guards in tow. As the first guard caught up to him, the other five began laughing and hitting him, throwing his basket of illegal furs to the ground. He agreed to comply with them, and allowed himself to be led back to the market by guard 1 while guard 2 held his hands behind his back. Guards 3-6 found themselves left out and bored, so they alternately hit his basket to the ground again and again, then kicked him in the knees and back as he stoops to pick up his merchandise. A random pedestrian joined the fun and laughed while he kicked the vendor to the ground once again.

Case 2:
Back in Chengdu, Kat and I arrived at the train station after our 30 hour ride from Beijing (much comfier this time - thank God for the simple comfort and companionship of the hard sleeper cabin!). Outside the train station, a poor minority woman (not of Han origins, probably from nearby western sichuan) was on her hands and knees, gathering the pomegranates that a smug security guard had just knocked out of her hands. She scrambled to save one from beneath the feet of the passing pedestrians, but the guard's buddy beat her to it and kicked it into traffic. She ran after it, while guard 1 patted his buddy on the back. Then they spyed another fruit vending woman across the street and jogged towards her, leaving the pomegranate woman to watch as cars destroyed her produce.

 These vendors were selling their goods in vaguely illegal territory, so action against them was warranted. However, the guards obviously do not trust themselves to know what that action should be. They are given enough authority to hold a baton (and sometimes a gun), but rarely enough to make potent decisions. The system breeds frustration, boredom, and one-up-manship rather than model citizenry. This, combined with a pervasive "us v. them" mentality results in situations in which these men behave like cruel schoolboys. Justice is one thing, derision is another.