Thursday, May 2, 2013

Women, Dancing by the Pond

Finally! Something exciting to write about!!

This morning, just another morning. Gary is due by in about 2 hours. That gives me time to do my morning wake up thing: read a little news, drink a little tea, do my stretches, put on my face. Having been in a deep, ponderous mood for so long and unable to shake it even as I enjoy light hearted pursuits, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to having company today.

I’ve been this way for about a month now, churning my thoughts on such weighty matters as abortion, political strife and division, gun ownership and deep disappointment and despondency – all these topics that currently fill American news headlines. I won’t write about it because this blog, as always, strives to be apolitical. That doesn’t stop me from grieving for my America, even over here, where I am physically safe and securely ensconced in a rewarding career.

I needed the alarm to wake me up at 8AM. Normally I would sleep till 9 or 10. After all, this is a holiday in China: the May 1st Holiday – Labor Day. But, Gary is due by and… why waste half the day sleeping, anyway?

I threw back my drapes. GASP!!! The sky is blue! That rare, infinite blue that avers the Heavens last forever and nothing could be wrong. Going from window to window, throwing my arms wide seemingly to cast drapes aside but actually to embrace the day, the morning’s first smile bubbles. I’m unconscious of it until I feel my carriage straighten and my head rear up.

A bit of news, a bit of email. Oh! Here is one from my Jenn! We’re having a nice discussion via email about a book I read at her suggestion. Quick response – fingers fly over the keyboard.

I’d better get moving. Wouldn’t do for Gary to catch me unready to go out, seeing as his whole purpose for visiting today is to show off his new car. An Audi. He’s stepping up in the world. His last car was a VW.

In the bathroom, applying eyeliner is when I first hear the drums and cymbals. What? A show? Hurry, let me rush to the window! There are the women, clad in bright green and neon pink, heralding the 1st of May.          

In China, this day is celebrated as Labor Day, but only since the year 2000. The country becoming more capitalist by the minute, the government is adding holidays to encourage tourism and spending. Labor Day was declared a 3-day holiday, lasting from April 29th to May 1st. Some like to stretch it out to 7 days, thus offering an opportunity to travel further or more extensively – another sign of a more expansive, more liberal China.

In the East as in the West, there is no free lunch. The three days that actually comprise the holiday must be made up. In our campus and in government offices, the work scheduled for those days was recouped by (in schools) Saturday and Sunday classes, and in offices by swapping the weekend days for actual workdays. Thus I taught my Monday classes on Saturday this past week. The upside is that it did leave me with a full 5 days to dally around.

TRAVEL!! VAGABOND!!! Those were my first thoughts when hearing of my schedule change. Immediately after: “You idiot! That’s what everyone will be doing! Best you stay home and avoid the rush!” Some kind of vagabond I am, right?

If I had traveled I would have missed Sam’s invitation for dinner tomorrow. I would have missed Gary, debuting his new car. I would have missed the women dancing.

These are the women who dance at dusk by the pond, as reported a few entries back in “The Evening Hours”. These same women wake up at… maybe 5:30 or perhaps 6AM to sweep and clean our campus and apartment compound. Look at their faces: they’re just glowing! Joyful! Totally blissed out on the day, the show they’re putting on, and the sunshine.

Well, not exactly the sunshine. Like women all over China and, in fact, all of Asia these women believe that pale skin equals refinement and beauty. Whereas they started their show in front of the teacher’s cafeteria one building over, they quickly migrated to the area just in front of my building so that they could dance in the shade.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen dancing women before, alluding to them several times throughout this blog. I’ve even beheld celebratory dancers: see Small Pagoda entry, posted February 2011 for an example. I’ve never been privileged to see dancers outside my apartment window before. I should take full advantage, shouldn’t I?

Armed with my camera and of course, not forgetting my house keys and phone I dashed outside. Gary might be calling any minute; shouldn’t leave my phone behind. Besides, I had another use for it. I’ll tell you in a minute.

Look! Look at these women! Look at their faces! These are the women who, 6 days per week, topped with straw hats and clad in drab green work pinafores and simple, black slacks meticulously sweep every square centimeter of our campus and housing area. These are the women who maintain our landscaping. These are the women who empty our trash bins and serve our food (not at the same time or even consecutively). These are the women who, in spite of their love for this area can never hope to own one of these new apartments.

Come evening, after tending to our luxurious environment they clog that lone, narrow opening in the wall that separates our world and theirs. They return to their dark, dank abodes. After a full day of sweeping, emptying, toting, sorting, planting and watering they will spend another hour, standing in their dimly lit, under-equipped kitchen to chop vegetables and fry up their bits of meat while the rice steams in the next room.

They will greet their family. If their elderly parents live with them, these women will ensure that Mother or Father gets the best of the meal. If their children have returned from school these women will cajole, nurture or admonish, as need be. If they have husbands, these women will turn a blind eye to his smoking and drinking – if those are his vices. Maybe, after dinner he will go back outside to congregate with the other men by the pool table at the corner store, or to play cards or checkers. Without even sighing a long-suffering sigh, these women will gather the dirty dishes, wash them in cold water and make the kitchen ready for its next service, at 5:30AM.

Are they tired? Do their feet hurt? Do they long for experiences outside the narrow confines of their life? Only they would know. But they do dance.

At night, after chores, after children have bent over books, after the elderly have returned from their nightly constitutional, these women gather once again. This time not to push brooms or trash bins or sod barrows, but to dance.

For only these late, exhausted, end of day hours they have to themselves, they dance. For fitness. For social connection. Maybe to give themselves something uniquely their own after tending to everyone else’s everything all day long. They still have in their heart a desire to dance. Remarkable.

I’ve never seen these women as radiant as they are at this very minute. Being one of the few that actually acknowledge their existence on a regular basis – many around our community will not even make eye contact with them, let alone greet them, I see their transformation. Look at those smiles! Look at their heads, held proud and high! Look at that gleam in their eye! Look at the grace of their movements! My friends, these are the women of my community. Aren’t they beautiful?   

The show went on till 11:30. The women had to return home to prepare the noontime meal, as they do every day. Of course it would not be feasible, or even entertaining for me to watch them dance for the whole two hours. After about 30 minutes I feigned a text message by consulting my phone. This gave the women ‘face’ while still excusing me away. Being as they had all seen the tall foreigner, and had even smiled and waved at me, it wouldn’t do for me to suddenly turn and walk away from their show for no reason.

Two dismaying things, the first being the lack of regard/respect shown these costumed, dancing women. As far as I could tell, the show was for our community. Yet hardly anyone turned out to see it. And, while they were dancing people walked right through their lines. Even worse: somebody wanted to drive out of the compound. Instead of going out the back entry the driver sounded his horn imperiously, causing the women to scatter mid-dance. How selfish! How rude!

The next dismay: The government, having to deal with the logistics of 3 peak travel periods instead of just 2 (National Day in October and New Year in January/February), shortened this holiday back to just 1 day. We don’t care; we’re still taking our 3 days off (but making up for it the weekend prior).

The dancing women don’t care either. As long as they get to dance.    


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