Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Goal, The Plan, The Result

The goal: A minimalist life

I came from nothing: a welfare baby from a 'broken' home. My parents divorced when I was very young. My childhood was fraught with uncertainty, living first in this country and then in that one, my mother always seeking some financial advantage: first on the welfare rolls in her home country, and then by marriage to a military man. When my siblings and I, in turn, reached adulthood, there were no nuggets of wealth set aside for us, either for education or to start our lives – not that we expected any.

Early adulthood was equally hardscrabble. For quite a few years, there existed the real possibility that I would follow in my mother's footsteps and have nothing to give my  own kids, to launch them successfully into their lives. That all turned around when I earned a government position. More money than I dreamed of, and financial security for as long as I wanted that job.

With the kids successfully launched, I found I wasn't fulfilled by a healthy bank account. I certainly didn't want to be poor again, but surely there's more to life than earning money, right?

Right around the time I was plagued with that restlessness, America suffered a terrible economic downturn. While I should have been fortunate to have such a secure income as I had, instead I wanted to do what many others were doing out of necessity: reducing their needs. Living on bare minimum. Uncluttering their life. And that's what I did. It was the start of my China adventure.

The Plan: Get rid of nearly everything I own: house, cars, most material possessions save for a trunkful of books and a handful of sentimental value tokens. Live as bare bones as possible, while taking in as much of the world as I can.  

The Result:

Here is where I take a break from the narrative. What brought me to this topic, anyway?

T'is the season for contract renewal. All over China and, I suspect, other parts of the world that welcome ESL teachers, those worthies are holding their breath in anticipation of signing on for another year. Or, they're making arrangements for another position. Some might even had had enough of being away from their home, and are planning a grand celebration once back in the fold of their kith and kin.

Me? I'm looking around this place I've called home for the last 5 years. What if I had to pack up and move on? And why haven't I moved on before now?

I've gotten comfortable here. I've settled in. Nested. I think of this place as my home.

There's the new mattress I bought at Ikea last year, because trying to sleep on that hard Chinese bed with my broken leg left me sleepless and crabby. And my oven: can't imagine not taking it with me when I leave. And I had bought myself 2 chairs: one for my office and one very comfortable one for my living room. Where I go, they both go. And my beloved bike! No way I'm leaving it behind. Other things, like my space heater and crock pot, I've long gotten my money's worth out of and, if I had to leave them behind, it wouldn't bother me to do so. But why leave them when I have so much else I'm not yet willing to part with?

Clearly, I'm not leaving Wuhan then, even if I have to leave this school. I have too much to move, and it would be too expensive to hire a truck for all of my things, to take them to another city.

Where would I go?

Probably another school in Wuhan. Or, maybe teach business English in a company? I've heard that a good foreign teacher can make quite a lot of money. That might be the way to go.

WAIT A MINUTE!!! What happened to my goal: live a minimalist life, money isn't everything, see as much of the world as possible?

I might have exaggerated my desire to continuously adapt, when I was formulating that plan. On the other hand, essentially since the outset of this adventure, I've been plagued: first with bad health, and then with a newly finicky stomach, and finally with broken bones. Well, in reality, just one bone, and I'm quite lucky it was just the one, considering that, during my 2 years of ill health, I was falling down a lot. Still, these bouts of health-related concerns have nearly convinced me it would be best to stay where I know what to buy and do in order to take care of myself.   

In light of that, is my original goal still feasible?

In theory, yes. I'm much wiser now about the ways of the world. I have experience as a teacher, something I didn't have when I started this gig. I'm still adventure-minded enough to be able to start over again, somewhere else – either another school, or another city altogether, if I had to.

Another country? That's debatable. I'm still learning Chinese – I'll be learning it forever. I don't think I'd like to transplant myself into another culture and language, and really: there's no need or desire to. China is so vast, and I have such a deep love for this country and her people! And then, there's the small matter of what I'd eat. My stomach is so picky these days, trying to get used to another cuisine might just undo me. I'm all for traveling to other countries, but I don't think I'd want to permanently relocate there, even if the Internet services there would be better/more accessible.

What would I be willing to give up in order to continue this adventure?

That is a really good question. As it is, I have relatively little, compared to my family and friends in the west. In fact, some of them would be appalled by how little there is in my home – let alone that which is actually mine. However, I have more than I intended to amass; certainly more than I can fit into 2 travel trunks. Bottom line: I can't seem to construe what I might be willing to live without because the need to do so hasn't yet hit me. Intellectually, I could say: I can live without most everything I have (I don't want to, though).

I still have some time to think about such things. Sam hasn't come by yet, offering a new contract. And, he might not: this might be the year I get the boot. There are no guarantees in life! I may well have been loyal to our institution and gone above and beyond what was expected of foreign teachers, I might have a following and hordes of devoted students, but in the end: nobody ever said this gig was forever.

Maybe I'd better get back to the plan, to ease the eventuality of leaving. Or, just because it was what I had planned all along.

Black Dragon River

Sounds mystical, doesn't it? It evokes a deep, dark, boggy flow, shrouded in mist, hidden in a primeval forest. From its waters comes... a beast? Maybe a monster?  Ever since I was aware that there is a Black Dragon River, I've wondered. I've longed to see it for myself.

Let's back up for a second, to see how I became aware of this magic-sounding river. Frankly, there is nothing so mundane as that discovery. It came about because, the more Chinese I learned, the more I could understand things. For example: the city I've called home for the last 6 years literally means 'soldier': ' – wu: military; – han: 'man'. Beijing means 'north capital' and Nanjing means 'south capital'. Xi'an, where the Terra Cotta warriors are, is 'west peace'.

And so it follows that Heilongjiang, China's northernmost province, literally translates to 'black dragon river'. See? Nothing mystical about it. There is a river, though. You might know it as the Amur, the world's 10th longest river. Most notably, it forms the border between eastern Russia and China. 

Now reduced to nothing remarkable, why would I ponder on Heilongjiang (pronounced 'hey – long – gee-ahng), months before I might have the opportunity to go there?

And why would I want to go there, to begin with?

See, I have this great idea for an amazing trip, and it would start in Black Dragon River province. Harbin (ha-are-bin),  that region's capital city, is famous for 2 things: the winter ice sculpture exhibitions, and the beginning of the Trans-Siberian railway. I am a ninny about the cold, but...

I have nearly 2 months off during the summer, when there is no ice anywhere, except in people's freezers!

Can you imagine it? I'll make my way north, north... ever north, until Harbin. And then, buy passage on the Trans-Siberian railway, ride into Moscow and take in the sights. From Moscow to St. Petersburg, long a dream destination, to visit The Hermitage.

I'm not sure where I go from there.

And I'm not sure this trip is feasable, which takes me back to the original question, the one I alluded to in my last post: why am I thinking about renting hotels and traveling in general, when I still have a little over 2 months of teaching to do?

Whereas, for some, spring means planting vegetables and, for others, it's a time to fall in love, for me, spring is when the world opens up: when I start dreaming of distant places and faraway shores.   

Why this grandiose plan, instead of exploring China, as I've vowed to do? It might have something to do with last year's travel season, when I went... nowhere. Laid up, nursing my broken leg, I'll admit: I got quite comfortable in my little routine. I found I was OK with not going anywhere grand, and not exploring anything. In fact, I had about talked myself out of exploring. That had a lot to do with the comforts of home – as opposed to the discomfort of traveling: strange beds, new foods...

And another factor: newly awakened to my own fragility, I realized the foolishness of gamboling about, all alone. What if I had another accident and, this time, there would be no one to call for help? What if I were stranded, far away from everyone and everything I know, and...

See how easy it is to dissuade oneself out of enjoying life?  

My recent trip to Huangpi, even though we were essentially in a suburb of Wuhan, awakened my yearning for adventure. I probably won't be as adventurous as I've been before, but I can still go, right? And so, with another 2 months in the classroom, my mind and heart are already on the far-away.

I suspect my fingers are going to be busy, telling you all about it. Stay tuned!

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Pictures of the Qing Ming.

         The village store (and the bundles of yellow paper 'money' to be burned)

The village well

The family, with supplies, in the village, before heading to the graves

The hills where the graves are

 The footpath to the graves

                                    The kitchen, capped well, in Penny's homestead.

     Penny's father's burial mound, with Sam wielding the shovel

 post celebration, Penny and Erica, exhausted, sleep in the back seat on the way home.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Foreigner Observes Qing Ming

“Have a nice Qing Ming!”
“We forgive you; you're a foreigner. You don't know any better”

                    Seen on social media

This weekend, all over China, people are manifesting reverence for their dead: by traveling home, by burning yellow paper in little chalk circles on sidewalks all over cities, by buying lavishly of fireworks, streamers, flowers, and the aforementioned yellow paper, that serves as currency in the afterlife. For the Chinese – whether they actively believe or just go through the motions, hold that their ancestors are alive and well in another world. Surely they need money, I-phones, jewelry and other items, cunningly made of paper. All is sent across the barrier of these two worlds by smoke: from incense, from candles, from reducing those paper items to ash.

This foreigner was uniquely privileged to witness, first-hand, how a family from a small village honors their dear departed. Penny hails from a such a village about 30 minutes outside of 黄陂(Huangpi -  who-ahng pee). Among her dead are the usual assortment of great- and grandparents and others, but also her father, who was taken when my friend was just 14 years old. As I've met most of Penny's family, I was eager to finally 'meet' her father.

Having arrived in Huangpi Friday evening, we set out early on Saturday morning to the village – if indeed it could be called a village: it was a collection of 7 houses. Not so much as a post office to distinguish it as a township proper. Arriving in a caravan of 3 cars over a succession of one-lane roads, we clambered out, shaking off the rattling we endured over the rough roads. Those most concerned with the proper playing out of events headed directly to the general store – essentially, a few shelves of goods, set up in someone's living room, to purchase all of the necessary accoutrements: firecrackers,  incense, candles and, of course, yellow paper 'money'. After borrowing a hoe, a shovel and a scythe, we set off, down a narrow footpath, into the hills.

Being an observer – not family, I arrived at the graves last, to see people climbing on dirt mounds, hacking away at vegetation with the scythe. Others were bringing chunks of sod to form caps on these mounds. Penny took a moment to 'introduce' me to everyone: here lay her grandmother and here, her great uncle. Over there rested an aunt, and, in the only marker not made of dirt, was her mother's brother. I questioned the difference in the tombs. Sam explained: in China, one is no longer afforded a whole-body burial, as they were in the past. These days, cremation is the law, so this uncle with the concrete marker was the only relative who was cremated.

Whether cremains or skeleton, everyone got the same treatment. The eldest of our party, a venerable old man, planted lit incense and candles in front of each grave. Young and old participated in burning 'money'. The feeling was not so much of reverence as of gaiety. Once the burial mounds had been clear of vegetation, Penny led the obeisance: in front of each grave, bowing 3 times with hands clasped and muttering something I did not catch. Finally, the men gave warning: “Small children, get away!”. They were about to light the firecrackers.

We all wended our way back to the homestead for a short break, and then repeated the process at another location, in the opposite direction of where we had been before. This time, the area was more open, and I could see what all went on.
This burial mound was cleaner and better tended. Hardly any vegetation grew on it, and it sat apart from others, on level ground. This was Penny's father's grave.

The mound stood nearly 2 meters tall. Fresh dirt was shoveled on, and the sides compacted. As with the other graves, sod was brought in to form caps – one inverted and one right side up. How I wish I knew the significance of these caps! As with the others, 'money' was burned, incense and candles were lit and planted, and this mound was encircled with a ribbon of fire crackers. Meanwhile, further back into the tree line, some of our party tended to other graves, giving them the same treatment. In a moment, the men once again declared we should make haste away, and set off the fire crackers. As we rushed, pell-mell, from the noise, exclamations of a wild boar sighting floated up. Too bad I missed it!

Strangely enough, at these burial mounds, there were old, discarded shoes. I have no idea why there would be shoes there. Sam did his best to explain, but I don't think I really caught the essence of the tradition.

Isn't it difficult to try to explain a ritual to a complete outsider? I am so grateful to Sam and Penny, who invited me to celebrate her family with such an intimate rite, so that I could witness for myself what happens, even if I left with more questions than answers. 

Why didn't we celebrate Sam's family? By tradition, daughters honor the family and men take care of it. Thus, for any other celebration, Sam would be called on to lead his kin. For Qing Ming, ancestor worship falls to his sister and her husband, whose sister, in turn, takes up the yoke for his family. However, these days, most people honor both sides of the family, traveling first here and then there to make sure all ancestors are equally revered and rewarded.   

After a third such gravesite visit, we had a lunch at some relative's house, still deep in the country. I'll describe the house, the meal and all that went on there in my next post but, for now, we have to drive sixty-eight kilometers, to Ezhou, to tend to yet another relative.

Remember Ezhou? That lovely little city I described in July, 2014? Such a good feeling I had when visiting there, that I decided that would be where would I retire to. Apparently, many others thought so, too. There were so many grave markers, even along the highway! When I shared this thought with my friends: how they laughed!

I stayed in the car with the two children while the adults paid their respects, in the pouring rain. Even though I wasn't grave-side, I can report one notable difference between the ceremonies in Huangpi and Ezhou: garish adornments. Whereas Huangpi graves are decorated only with candles and incense, Ezhou tombs are lavishly embellished with streamers, tall posts wrapped in bright paper; and vivid, larger-than-life silk flowers. Of course, paper 'money' and fire crackers feature heavily. Penny explained that every region, and perhaps every village treats their ancestors differently. What is the norm in Ezhou would be considered bad taste in her village.

I might have questioned the depth of feeling, considering the general air of festivity surrounding the proceedings of the last 2 days, if not for the incident at dinner in Huangpi. It took place in a fancy restaurant, and everyone who was graveside also attended the meal. Erica, my little buddy, soon grew restless – young children care little about momentous events. To amuse her, I taught her how to make flowers out of tissue paper. The prettiest one she requested I put in her hair. She then went to all the relatives, preening and expecting compliments.

Everyone told her her flower was horrible! Because the tissue paper was white, and white symbolizes death, the assembled family told her to remove her flower, because she's not dead and shouldn't adorn herself as though dead. Penny's aunt went so far as to snatch it out of the poor, bewildered child's hair. Sam and Penny tried to explain the significance of white flowers in vain: the child thought her flower was pretty, and meant to wear it in spite of its supposed significance. 

Once again I acknowledge that China is a land of contrasts: one may merrily set fire crackers alight around graves to wake the dead, but not adorn themselves with white flowers, for fear that the dead may actually rise and snatch a beloved child prematurely.

Who am I to understand where the lines of distinction lie when understanding the import of putting pretty flowers in a young girl's hair?  

Huangpi Impressions

When Sam introduced the idea of observing Qing Ming with Penny's family, I thought it would be a day trip: drive to the village, make our obeisances, and be back home in time for dinner. I had no idea, until the day of departure, that the affair would consume nearly the entire weekend. I'll admit I balked:  Extended socializing has always been difficult for me. And so long in the company of virtual strangers! Even though I had met most of Penny's family, and Sam and Erica would also be there, I anticipated discomfort at being such a standout in a village where never, had a foreigner roamed. Nevertheless, Sam and I enthusiastically formulated our plans: I would ride to his house, where we would be met by a cousin who would drive us to Huangpi, a rural district of Wuhan proper.

Unfortunately, everyone else in Wuhan also had the idea of traveling on Friday night so, what should have been an hour's drive turned into a nearly 3 hour journey. We turned up at Penny's aunt's apartment a little after 10. The initial rash of greetings, of exchanging gifts, of proffering food – a snack of dumplings and tea, and then it was off to the hotel Penny had thoughtfully reserved for me, no doubt anticipating my being overwhelmed at the Chinese-ness of the get-together. She was right: a dozen people crammed into a 2-bedroom apartment would have undone me.

The next morning, I got a bit confused. Sam had said we were staying in Huangpi overnight because no hotel existed in Penny's village. I know that, in China, neighborhoods within cities are sometimes called villages – (cun – tsun), and marked by an elaborate gate. Having driven through an elaborate gate to get to the neighborhood, I thought we were already in the village. I learned my mistake when we went to the actual village.

The city fell away. Wide vistas of green took over. Soon, our caravan turned onto a one-lane road, bumping along. Further: turning here and there on unmarked paths, now uphill and now around a bend, always honking the horn lest a car, or even a motorcycle come from the opposite direction and smash head-on: driving in the country is no less a skill than in the city. Soon our caravan pulled up to a cluster of 7 houses: the village.

Because of the holiday, car traffic on these lanes was heavier than usual. However, noting how few cars were parked in driveways, I had to ask: how does one arrive to the villages if s/he has no car?  According to Sam, one can hire a taxi to drive from the city, at a cost of about 25 Yuan. Or, if relatives know you are coming, they can arrange for a neighbor with a motorcycle to pick you up. Indeed, 2-wheeled traffic seemed to be standard. Most every house had at least a scooter in front of it, if not a motorcycle, and the narrowness of the lanes testify that cycles would be safer and sufficient.

The home Penny grew up in follows the standard country home: 3 stories made of brick and concrete; uninsulated, unfinished concrete floors, with a lean-to kitchen – with an actual well! A later remodel provided an indoor kitchen with a gas burner, and a bathroom with shower. The ceilings were 14 feet, at least. It seems electricity was an add-on, seeing as all of the wiring was external to the walls.

What westerners would call a parlor - the first room of the house, held simply a mantle, under a huge picture of Mao Ze Dong shaking hands with Zhou En Lai, and, to the left of that painting, a sepia-toned 8x10 print of Penny's father, who died when she was 14. On the mantle was a cooked fish on a plate, some fruit and a bowl of rice, offerings to the dead. A few primitive cobbler's benches lined one wall. A square table and an electronic mahjong table completed the decor. Everything except the mantle was drop-clothed, because nobody lives there, anymore: Penny's mom recently had a terrible health scare that landed her in the hospital for 2 weeks. The family is reluctant for her to live out in the country, by herself. I daresay Mom is happy to have family support, and to not be so far away from medical facilities.

It was easy to see that the other houses in that village followed the same pattern because of the custom of throwing both doors open in the morning and not close them until bedtime. Unconsciously, I contrasted this habit with westerners who resolutely shut and lock their doors as soon as they are inside. But then: western mindset dictates that you protect what you own. Therefore, locking oneself into one's home is the norm. I think I prefer the idea that, if you have nothing worth stealing, there's no point in locking any doors. Besides: how better to be neighborly than throwing your doors wide open so that anyone can wander in? 

In the quiet so deep and unsettling, disturbed only by our voices, I tried to imagine what living in this village would be like, when no caravans of cars pulled up. After all, HDTV didn't seem to have arrived there, and my phone showed no wireless networks. “What do people do for fun?” I asked Sam.

“Play mahjong” he answered. “People will play from after lunch until dinnertime, and then after dinner until midnight or later, especially when the fields are fallow.”

Here I must confess that, even after more than 5 years in China, I've yet to learn how to play this national pastime. Anyway, I found it hard to believe that any game could be so entrancing that one could play for hours on end, but soon it was proven that, indeed: country life involves hours of mahjong play.

After our third graveside ritual, we pulled up at a relative's house. There we would eat a magnificent lunch. While, from inside the house – doors again flung wide open, we could hear the sizzle and stirring of food being cooked, we sat around outside, on the concrete patio, chatting away. The children amused themselves in another part of the house, its doors also widely welcoming.

Time to eat! We were all ushered in to what again would be called a parlor in the west. A round piece of wood was set up on a mahjong table and dishes abounded. There wasn't enough room around the table for everyone, so some fixed a bowl and ate outside (there was another mahjong table in the 'parlor', but without a piece of wood to protect its felt top, it would not be used as a dining table).

Once sated, the 'party' devolved. The table was cleared off and the wooden round removed. The cry rang out: “Who wants to play?” Nobody needed to say what would be played. Penny ran in, securing a seat at our recently vacated table. Others gathered 'round, and staffed the second table as well.

And so the afternoon went. Round after round of tiles surfaced out of the mechanical tables' slots. Bet after bet was made and paid. Those who did not play, watched. Some drifted outside, to stare inscrutably to the horizon, at the pregnant rain clouds. The children played, first indoors and then out, and then in the car. Sam found a bed and took a nap. I did my best to learn the game by watching, but mahjong is not a game you can learn by watching. Soon frustrated, I dug my Kindle out of my pack and read till the battery died.

The players did not move from their seats until a little after 5, when someone declared it was time to go. And then, they all rose, seemingly as one, and marched out the door. As many as could fit loaded up in the 3 cars we had; the rest stayed behind to wait for their turn to ride. On the way back to town and the fine restaurant we would dine in, the clouds finally broke, and with them, my stupor.

Stupor? Indeed! I simply couldn't believe that Sam was right about playing all afternoon, to the exclusion of all else!

I'd like to come back to Huangpi. It is a lovely city, and there are plenty of attractions, most attibuted to that heroic warrior, Mulan. Was she from this area, or is she just celebrated here? I couldn't find much information about her anywhere on the 'Net, nor could I find any listing for tourism in Huangpi. I do know I can ride a Wuhan city bus to get there. I'll have to take my chances that foreigners can rent hotel rooms.

What a lead-in for my next entry!