Thursday, January 30, 2003

Went to the Sanxingdui Museum and saw a newly discovered 5000-year-old culture the other day. Amazing bronze relics and stone work. Many unanswered questions. No one knows who they were or what they were doing. Also, I went to a Divine Light Buddhist Monastery and achieved enlightenment. So, I got that going for me.

Went to a bar and met Daisy's son's former kindergarten teacher. She was a singer t the place. She was quite beatutiful and dressed in black leather pants. I'd have perfect attendance if she were my teacher ... Met another sweet young girl who played the violin. She is studying classical music and plans to go to America in a year or so. We asked her to play an Irish tune but she didn't know any. The government restricts access to certain websites. Why Irish music?

When boyhood's fire was in my blood
I read of ancient free men ...

OK, maybe they have a reason.

People here seem to interpret everything that happens in the world as for or against China, regardless of whether the event has anything to do with the PRC. Strange viewpoint. The skyscrapers in Shanghai seem to say, "See? You made us feel bad by building all those tall buildings in America. Now we have some cool ones too -- and they're brand new!"

Laowai (lao why) is the word used for foreigners -- not orientals. I have heard this on several occasions. People stare here in a manner that is most rude in the West. Actually, many people here would get thrown out of western restaurants for the way they act.

Yesterday we went to visit the grave of Daisy's friend who died in a car accident. A gay man who was never able to come out of the closet here. Evenhis best friends don't know. People burned candles and joss sticks and replicas of large-denomination bills.

Last night we had a hot pot in what would be a back alley in the US. Fireworks were going off around the neighborhood. Daisy's relatives burned candles and fake money for the new year and made requests of departed ancestors.

Today we are celebrating the New Year at Daisy's parent's place. Happy New Year!

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Today we had an experience that I found fascinating. We visited a Buddhist temple here in Chengdu. A girl who wanted to practice her English told me it is over 1000 years olf. People burned joss sticks and were sending prayers for the new year to heaven with the smoke. There was building after building and in between were the courtyards with the prayers and clouds of smoke. Statues of Buddha. A wood-carved fish with a pearl in his mouth. Mouth facing outside means there is room in the monastery and travelers are welcome. Saw the eating room with the old-looking painting of Buddha on the wall. I took a lot of video tape and photos of the temple. It was a great place to play cinematographer and photographer.

We visited another temple that has the tomb of Liu Bei, the Emperor of the Shu Kingdom (now Sichuan). He ruled during the Three Kingdoms Period just after the time of Christ. He died in 223 AD and the temple was built to commemorate him. I learned a lot from the tour. You know those little statues in stores in Chinatown -- the ones with the oranges and incense nearby? The statues are of Guan Goong, an ally of Liu Bei. He has become a kind og god of wealth.

This second temple we visited was more beautiful and historical than the first. 1700 years of history. The stories of the Three Kingdoms period feed not only Chinatown superstitions but books, Peking Opera plots, artworks, and poetry.

We had another incredible dinner with Daisy's family. (Another uncle wanted to take us out.) A delicious feast. A lazy Susan covered with unbelievable treats. Some of the highlights were the spicy dishes -- my favorites at any rate -- the spicy pork, spicy fish, and the very spicy beef that concluded the meal. There was also some interesting Pow Tai -- pickled vegetables and chicken feet (no bones!) -- and some noodles and unbelievable ribs. There were too many dishes to try let alone mention.

I had a very interesting conversation (Daisy translating of course) with Daisy's 82-year-old granduncle who spent his whole career in Peking Opera. He is afriendly, artistic, open-minded man, a real gentleman. He seems taken with me and appreciates my efforts at Chinese. (I surpirse myself every day with the sentences I come out with. It's amazing the number of words I know. I've even picked up some Sichuan dialect from hearing it so much.)

Tomorrow we head north of Chengdu to theSanxingdui museum -- a new museum with some very ancient art.

Hope all is well back in the states. Pangdudu (as Daisy's son and niece call me) worked off some of the dinner tonight by stealing balloons from the kids and scoring a few touchdowns for the Eagles.

Ni leng bu leng! (Say as fast as possible. It means are you cold or not? Bu leng!)

Monday, January 27, 2003

Yesterday, Daisy and I visited Du Fu's house here in Chengdu. It had beautiful sculptures and architecture -- some of the buildings going back 2-300 years (about the same age as Olde City Philadelphia), some high-tech displays, and a certain amount of interesting information. The propaganda was somewhat off-putting, however. It wasn't much but they were definitely pushing the idea that Du Fu was great because he loved his country and wrote about the sufferings of the little people. I think he wrote about drinking and missing his friends and nature as much as those "patriotic" themes .... Anyway, in my view, it is an ignorant way of describing the work of a great poet.

After the visit to Du Fu's house we went to a lovely street of faux-Chinese-temple architecture and stopped at a tea house. As we sat drinking the tea (loose tea served in a cup with a lid with which you hold the leaves back from your mouth) we could see an elegant pagoda across the street. We were pretty sure this was a modern construction as well. But, it didn't matter. China is not Europe, with old ruins and historical buldings popping up as you walk down the street. The old buildings are poor unhealthy homes crammed together and they are being torn down everywhere. Most of the buildings seem to be 1960-70s Western-style office buildings. So, even if the pagoda was erected last week, it is an interesting piece of architecture and something that at least looks Chinese.

We took a triangle bike -- a guy pedalling a three-wheeled bicycle -- to a popular huo guo (hot pot) restaurant. The place was packed and noisy. Daisy's family and her friend and her friend's family had secured two tables. The hot pots boiled and steamed like witches' cauldrons. The food was very spicy and delicious. The best hot pot I've had and the spiciest food I've had in Chengdu. (Everything here is delicious. The trip to China -- and Chendgu -- is worth it just for the food.) I had fun playing with the kids -- making funny faces and holding staring contests. They practiced some of their English and I my Chinese.

-- Ni xihuan huo guo haishi ni xihuan Kendujie? I asked the little girl. (Do you like hot pot or do you like KFC?)
-- Kendujie! she cried.
-- How about Kendujie huo guo? (KFC hot pot)
-- Kendujie huo guo deeleecious! Daisy's son shouted.

That about sums it up for me this chilly Sichuan morning. What more needs to be said?

Hope all is well! I'll be back with a more coherent entry soon!

Friday, January 17, 2003

Leaving for China

(A poor homage to Du Fu, poet of the Tang Dynasty, 8th Century)

A coating of snow makes the sidewalks slippery this morning.
The sun shines a spotlight down Fordham Road.

A flock of pigeons circles and circles above Kingsbridge.
Nothing keeps the cold wind from my cheek.

This afternoon I will take a long flight to China.
At the end of the journey a bar in Shanghai.

Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Adventure Number One

I just had the first adventure of my trip. I went to Citibank on Fordham Road (in, as the sign says, “The Bronx, An All America City”) to get some traveler's checks. I walked quickly in order to get far ahead of a group of girls from nearby Roosevelt High. Though they were traveling in a pack, they were screaming so loudly that they seemed to be trying to reveal their out-of-control hormones, low self-esteem, and bad hearing to anyone within a mile. I had had three years of cafeteria duty with such girls at a high school in the South Bronx. It had been almost fourteen years since those lunch periods and yet my psyche still bore the scars.

I crossed to the other side of Fordham Road.

The process of getting the traveler's checks took a long time. While I was at the counter waiting for the shapely young teller with the Spanish accent to get the checks, I looked at the CNN broadcast on the TV and listened to the conversations in Spanish around me. I tried to make out what people were saying and to imagine what it will be like next week to be surrounded by conversations in Chinese. What captured most of my attention, however, was my attractive young teller’s stopping to talk with an older woman. I saw the older woman fix the young teller’s hair. This was not that remarkable. But then I watched her adjust the lapel of her suitjacket and stroke her cheek and chin. These were not just coworkers, I surmised, and, perhaps, not just friends. Finally, I saw the young teller’s gaze penetrate the other woman’s eyes so that the rest of the room seemed to disappear for her. Surely, this was the gaze of an intimate.

Eventually, the young woman came back and asked me to fill out my name and address on the check packages and to sign each check. As I was doing this, another bank teller, whom I had not really noticed, suddenly asked me if I had taught at St. P--- High School. Indeed, I had, nearly fourteen years ago.

The face had certainly grown older and heavier since I had last seen it but slowly its features became familiar ... and then I recognized.... the voice!

— Yvonne? I asked.

Yes, it was she.

From what I recalled, she had been a good student and a decent kid, but a loud one ciertamente. The younger, attractive teller told me that Yvonne had been telling her that she had recognized me. We talked a little about marriages and such. Then they wanted to know if I was getting ready for a trip. When I told them I am going to China, their eyes lit up.

— Sounds like fun! they exclaimed.

I told Yvonne I am a Technical Writer and she seemed impressed by this. For want of something to say, I asked if she had any kids. She had three and another was on the way.

She looked as if she had aged a great deal since I had seen her. Maybe the strain of motherhood and of her current pregnancy had taken their toll. I would’ve thought that her good grades would have carried her higher than being a bank teller on Fordham Road but, then again, there I was back in the Bronx again myself — after all these years and a graduate degree. I imagine she is happy with her family life and enjoys working close to home. Anyway, it was good to see her and a positive omen for my trip, I believe.

Monday, January 13, 2003

Howyadoin'/Ni hao ma?

The above phrases providing a title for this weblog are used to ask an interlocutor how he or she is doing -- the first in New Yawk English and the second in Mandarin Chinese.

It is Monday afternoon in New York and I am struggling to comprehend the fact that at this time on Friday afternoon I will be flying to China. I will be in China for three weeks and I plan to use this blog as a journal of the trip. It will contain facts, descriptions, anecdotes, obervations on the sights and people and culture, frustrations, foolishness, and, basically, the impressions of an artistic mind in the throes of culture shock.

Here is the basic plan: this Friday my Chinese wife and I will be flying from JFK to Beijing non-stop. After a brief lay over, we will proceed to Shanghai. We'll spend a couple of days in Shanghai before heading to my wife's hometown, Chengdu, the capital of the Sichuan Province. At the end of the trip, we will head back to Beijing for a couple of days of tourism before the flight back to New York.

Here are a few things we should clear up before we get started:

* Though I have been to Ireland and Canada, I have never been to a non-English speaking country (except the Bronx).

* I have never been on a plane for 14 hours. My entertainment and comfort during this ordeal will be A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Crime and Punishment, and, doubtless, plenty of alcohol.

* I have not met my in-laws and they don't speak any English.

* In preparation for the trip, I have studied Mandarin Chinese on the subway on and off for about a year and a half and have a decent grasp of how to order food and how to ask how many people are in your family and if it was windier today or yesterday. I have also read a book on Chinese history, some Chinese guide books and a a decent amount Chinese literature, especially the poetry of Du Fu and Li Bai.

* "Mimihoohoo" is the Mandarin word for "Tipsy."