Thursday, February 27, 2003

Routes Red and Blue

Some more quick thoughts on the issue of collective vs. individual culture:

As I mentioned, the construction is preceded by destruction. Old rundown houses in the downtown areas are being razed. The former residents get new, more modern places farther away from the center of the city. They also have the option of moving back downtown at a higher price (which, truth be told, not many can afford.) Then the downtown area is revitalized with office buildings that bring more money into the city than the lowly domiciles would ever be able to. When I first heard the explanation, I had been in China long enough to think (despite the sadness I was sure people experienced when leaving their homes and attendant memories behind) , “Hey, what a good program. The people get better houses – and have a choice. The construction companies make money. The city gets revitalized. The city makes more money. The economy gets better for everyone.” Then I thought about what would happen in America.

There’s no way that America would go for this.

No matter how good the deal was there would always be some nutjob who would refuse to take it. There would be lawsuits and endless rangling. I thought of the “Blue Route” in the Philadelphia area, a major improvement in the highway system intended to connect I-95 with the PA Turnpike. It took 4-5 decades of fighting to get it opened.

Not in my backyard. Not through my front yard. Not near my bedroom. Not through my expensive neighborhood.

Of course, as Daisy pointed out, there is a crucial difference. In America, individuals own land. In China, the government owns it all.


Collective vs Individual

Here are a few observations about Chinese and American culture:

I had heard and read many times that Chinese culture is collective and American culture is individualistic. As I type it, it even seems like a cliché. However, despite being married to a woman from China and my spending a lot of time with Chinese people in New York, I had never really experienced this difference first hand.

When I was in China, I did notice this difference between our two cultures. It manifests itself in little ways. One example that springs to mind comes from the trip to KFC. When I went to take Wan Zhi to wash his hands, outside the bathroom there was a common sink for the customers to use. When the water was running people had no problem with extending their hands into the stream of water at the same time that someone else had his or her hands in it. This was not rude or impatient in the NYC sense of these words. No one seemed to be in a great hurry. (In fact, the Chinese people struck me as rather patient compared with New Yorkers.) The difference seemed to be in the concept of “turns.” The people didn’t seem to have the notion that, “This is MY TURN and I have the individual right to the unrestricted use of this sink for as long as MY TURN lasts.” In other words, it wasn’t that people were being rude and intruding on someone else’s turn. They just didn’t have the individualistic idea of turns and so they were collectively using the sink.

The way people drink when they go out to eat is another example of this. When my family goes out in the USA, I might have a beer, while my sister has a Merlot, and my dad a cocktail. It seems that Chinese families all drink the same thing – usually jiu, the rice wine liquor. When I was there, they drank beer because that is what Daisy had told them that I prefer. But, the beer did not come in individual 12-ounce bottles. It came in large half-liter bottles that were shared communally.

Of course, the communal style extends to the way people eat as well. At restaurants and at home, a variety of dishes is placed in the middle of the table and everyone eats from them.

I’m not sure, but I think this might apply to the concept of personal space also. When people are reaching for food from a communal plate, they have no qualms about reaching over your bowl in a way that would be considered rude in the West. There is no, “Please pass the string beans.” Again, this is not rude or impatient or aggressive. There just seems to be no concept of an individual table space that should not be violated. I had some difficulty overcoming my upbringing in this situation. Often there were tasty morsels on the other side of the table that I felt too inhibited by our concept of manners to reach out for. People have no problem standing up and reaching over the table for some piece of food. I could eat the rabbit heads but somehow couldn’t bring myself to do this.

I may be wrong but this personal space idea might also be applicable to the roads. Cars have no problems going into various lanes – including lanes of oncoming traffic. Pedestrians stroll into the street and cars and bikes just avoid them. The idea seems to be, “This is our road. We are all using it together and we will avoid running into one another.” There doesn’t seem to be a concept of “My lane. My turn. My right of way.” You never have to run to get out of the way of a car speeding toward you because its driver feels that you are in his lane and it is his right of way, as I have to do so often in NYC, especially in the Bronx.

I think this difference in collective vs. individualistic culture explains why Communism is acceptable in China and repugnant to Americans.

Anyway, these are some basic observations. There is a great deal more I will get to in future posts.





Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Hot Water for Opera

Chengdu Saturday: It began slowly and turned into one of the best experiences of the trip. In the guidebook we had, there was some information about Sichuan opera at a teahouse downtown. But, we called and found that the teahouse and show were no longer with us. (All of the construction in China means that many restaurants, teahouses, and other businesses suddenly pass away, destruction preceding construction, doncha know.) My father-in-law decided we should go to the teahouse nearby to hear some Peking opera. So, after the clumsy process of getting my in-laws, Daisy’s son, and Daisy out of the apartment, we made our way through the apartment complex to a little green cab on the main road.

We got to the teahouse and I was just glad to have made some progress. (I travel much more lightly and quickly on my own.) I hadn’t really given much thought to the experience I was about to have. We passed the public bathroom whose incense did little to mask the strong smell of human waste and made our way among the old walls and imaginatively shaped doorways to an outdoor teahouse with bamboo chairs. Beyond the group of teahouse chairs and tables there was another underneath an old, traditional-looking roof, though still open to the air and, when the wind was right, to the aromas wafting from the toilets. (I did mention that, yes, smell, was part of what I had to have an open mind about – right?) Under the old roof was a stage and an audience of mostly old men sitting on bamboo chairs.

The stage supported a singer performing Peking opera. He was wailing in that strange style, while musicians sawed on instruments that looked like fiddles held upright. I had heard this music before and had joked around about it. All of the notes seem to be off key and the singers and musicians make sounds that to Western ears sound like screeching. This is all punctuated by a crashing drum whose sound falls somewhere between those of a cymbal and a gong.

About as different from what we are used to hearing as rabbit head is to what we are used to eating. It was bizarre.

And yet, I was transfixed. In a way I hadn’t expected.

The in-laws and wife were fussing and talking and trying to decide where to sit or whatever. But after crossing in front of the stage behind them, I had no interest in going outside to the other teahouse area beyond. I stopped and stared at the performance, as, no doubt, many had stared at me as I had come in. When the piece ended I applauded enthusiastically.

The lady who seemed to be the MC appreciated this. Then there was a commotion behind me. Daisy had run into her granduncle who just happened to be there that day to perform!! I shook his hand and said it was nice to meet him – Renshi ni wo hen gaoxing – and after a little chat turned back to the music. The lady who had appreciated my loud clapping (it’s a gift) now directed me to a chair in the front row.

I took it and Daisy came and sat next to me. Tea appeared immediately, of course. I was enthralled with the show. It was not that I really “liked” the music. It is very grating to our ears; I imagine those sounds would get one kicked out of a Western music school. But the whole experience was a thrill. I had never seen such a performance in my life. Yet it reminded me in a strange way of finding a local pub in a small town in Ireland where the fiddles scream and the people yell through the smoke, “Quiet for the singer!” I was witnessing an extraterrestrial seisun! Or so it seemed.

Wan Zhi played in front of the stage and wandered off now and then. Daisy came and went. I stayed in my seat mong all the old men and did my best to appreciate the music. When the woman with the large kettle of hot water appeared to refill people’s tea cups, an old man nudged me and pointed to her with his head, as if to say, “Make sure you get some more water, buddy.” In a land marked with mind-boggling differences, a gesture of acceptance!

This was not a government saving face with skyscrapers. This was not propaganda. This was not showing off. This was regular people preserving traditions. This was music. This was feeling. Like seeing a loving look in the eye of a child who doesn't speak your language, this was an experience of common humanity.

Daisy laughed when she saw how I got into the performance, holding back the loose leaves with the lid of my cup as I sipped my tea and tapped my foot to the music.

Eventually, after more than an hour, Daisy’s granduncle appeared on stage. What a moment! What a fine old artist and gentleman – 83 years of age – putting his heart into his old song!

Monday, February 24, 2003


Amusements

On our first Friday morning in Chengdu, Daisy and I took the two kids, Wan Zhi and Mimi, to a local amusement park. This was a short walk from where we were staying. Daisy walked along holding her son’s hand and I followed holding Mimi’s hand. This, of course, caused some consternation among the pedestrians and cyclists in the area, not knowing how they should categorize this unusual (for Chengdu, not for NYC) group of people. Who was related to whom? How did the laowai fit into the picture and how was it that the two kids were so close in age? (And how did they manage to have two kids -- which is against the law?)

At least, that’s what the looks on their faces told me they were thinking.

Along with being convenient, the amusement park had a lot of attractions and rides. It also was covered with that dirt and grime from the pollution and the construction dust in the air. It was clear from the beginning that the kids had been there before and knew exactly what they wanted to do. We just followed them.

The first place they brought us to was the pigeon-feeding area. Scores of white pigeons (or “doves”) hung out within a fence, waiting to be offered birdseed. We bought a few packs of birdseed and the kids had the birds eating out of their hands. Daisy and I fed some birds as well. It was a funny feeling to have them pecking at your palm and to feel a pigeon occasionally walk across your foot. (This don't happen in da Bronx, knowwhadimean?)

We rode a monorail around the park and eventually got to a place where the kids could do artwork. Wan Zhi took some gooey sort of material and squirted it into a pattern shaped like a dinosaur. Then they microwaved it until the gooey stuff hardened. The result was a very fine orange dinosaur with a volcano in the background. He finished in a flash and was off to the video arcade.

Mimi’s approach was quite different and I actually found it impressive and touching. She had a picture of a mermaid that was composed of yellow stickers with outlines. She peeled the stickers off to uncover a sticky substance underneath. Then she took colored powders that were arranged in several buckets all around her and poured onto the sticky substance spoonfuls of the color of her choice. In this way she filled in the hair and tail and other parts of the mermaid picture with a lovely mosaic of colors. I was amazed with how patient she was and how she knew exactly what she wanted. She didn’t make a sound throughout her artistic process. And it seemed to me her choices of colors were very good. My wife was surprised at my patience with this exercise. She came back from the video arcade to rescue me. But I was fine. I was enjoying watching this little artist create her mosaic of colored powders.

The two kids played in the arcade for a while and then we headed downtown to KFC -- or, as they call it, “Kendujie.” They absolutely love KFC and are envious of Americans because we "eat it here every day"! We had fun eating and goofing around. At one point when my wife was at the KFC counter, Wan Zhi and Mimi leaned across the table toward me and I did the same. We were making funny faces and doing whatever we could to communicate and laugh. Then Mimi bent down and kissed my hand as it lay on the table.

While eating the hotpot dinner that evening, Wan Zhi made his “Wo xihuan baba” (I like Daddy) statement.

I guess these two results are not bad for my second day as a xing Baba (new Daddy).

Friday, February 21, 2003

YES!

I mentioned this meal in one of my earlier posts, but here it is in greater detail ...

When we stepped into the apartment after our first walk around Chengdu, we were surprised to see a crowd there. OK, maybe “crowd” is pushing it. But, in addition to the usual family members there were another aunt and uncle and a couple of my wife’s friends.

They call the one uncle I hadn’t met before “Xiao Jiu Jiu” or “Little Uncle.” He is my mother-in-law’s brother. (His older brother is “Da Jiu Jiu” or “Big Uncle.”) I soon found myself seated next to him at the round table they had set up for dinner. Several dishes lay on the table already (and a few more were on the way), including one filled with spicy rabbit, which I really enjoyed and had had previously at a Chengdu stand in Flushing, Queens. My other favorite was the home-made sausage made by Daisy's aunt from across the hall. The sausage went well with the beer. And there was plenty of beer.

A row of tall green bottles of the local Green Leaf beer stood behind me on a shelf by the TV. Whenever my 6-8 ounce glass was empty, someone immediately refilled it from one of the bottles. Xiao Jiu Jiu became my drinking buddy and partner in comedy.

This was Xiao Jiu Jiu’s first meal ever with a foreigner. He didn’t speak any English, except the word “Yes!” which he repeated emphatically whenever he could. He claimed, however, that he only knew British and not American English. He proceeded to speak Mandarin with a British accent. Or so I was told. Whenever there was a lull in the conversation, he wanted to drink another toast with me -- or my father-in-law did. They would cry, “Gan bei” or just “Gan” (drink it all or bottoms up) and sometimes meant it literally. After a while, they started a game of pointing at the glass to indicate how much should be drunk. This was all very silly -- and completely unexpected. My head was spinning, of course, but I played along. I also upheld the honor of both America and Ireland.

Xiao Jiu Jiu told me that beer is nothing for him. He normally drinks Chinese rice wine liquor. I mentioned Wu Liang Ye. It happened to be one brand I had heard of and one made in Sichuan. It also happened to be very expensive.

“I have to save Chinese Face,” Xiao Jiu Jiu responded. “And say I drink Wu Liang Ye every day! YES!”

I told him my grandparents came from Ireland, a country where “whiskey” is the word for water (uisce.)

He had to save Chinese face again by demonstrating how much he could drink.

The conversation and nonsense continued like this for quite a while. The meal was delicious. The laughter was uproarious. Xiao Jiu Jiu kept saying that none of us would have any fun if it weren’t for him. My wife kept saying it was the funniest dinner ever. Her friend decided that because of my sense of humor, I could fit in well with my new family.

It was indeed a hilarious mimihoohoo meal that somehow led to my donning a cardboard band, playing Hide and Seek, and becoming known as “Pangdudu.”

Thursday, February 20, 2003


Chengdu: First Impressions

My experience of Chengdu is not for the faint of heart. In addition to the rabbit heads to go with your beer, there are some living conditions that Americans, even New Yorkers, are not used to. As I mentioned, the apartments have no heat: as do none south of the Yangtze River. The temperature was probably in the 40s or 30s. But it is damp. You are chilly much of the time but never freezing cold (except when getting out of the shower.) You have to wear a coat and sweater inside the apartments.

Daisy’s parents live, as I’ve said, in a complex of grey cement buildings. People have no clothes dryers and so depend on clotheslines or on putting wet clothes on hangers on the bars that curl in front of their windows. (This is not an incredible hardship, really, but the hanging laundry seems to set off some subsconscious alarms in an American's subconscious: warning “Bad neighborhood.”)

The toilets are porcelain basins built into the floors. Daisy had warned me that you can't sit down on the toilets but I had not imagined this. (Only the best hotels -- two that I know of -- in Chengdu had sit-down toilets.) To take a shower, we had to hang a showerhead on the bathroom door, run the hot water in the sink, and throw a switch to bring water through the showerhead.

Though the roads outside the complex are modern and wide, those within the complex are potholed and covered with dust. The air is very polluted and this coating of dust seems to be on everything. Even the dirt seems grey. There is not much that is attractive to the eye -- partly because it is hard to see very far in the smog. The sky is cloudy much of the time, which doesn’t help. (They say dogs bark at the sun when it appears in Chengdu.)

Though this apartment complex is in the middle of a very large city, its residents have roosters and chickens tied to poles or in cages. I saw people on bicycles riding through the apartment complex selling live chickens from baskets. During one of my first days there, I saw one old lady holding a live chicken while another tied a string around its feet. I saw a pet cat tied to something with a leash as well. Along the narrow roads there are vendors selling food, a tent where people play mah jong, a little open-air hotpot restaurant, and other tables and stands offering items for sale. Within the complex, there is a large outdoor market with all kinds of food and animals for sale -- including rabbits and pigeons (not for pets.) The outdoor market itself is an amazing experience of sensory overload, even for a guy accustomed to Manhattan’s Chinatown and the Bronx’s Little Italy.

However, the hospitality and the food were incrredible and I felt very welcome in my in-laws’ apartment. After breakfast (a Chinese bun and a spicy soy bean concoction called, “Xue doe suh”) and a morning of playing with the kids, my wife and I decided to take an afternoon walk.

Well, if I thought I’d been stared at in Shanghai …

I was a bit disappointed with Chengdu, at first. I had expected something like a European city with old buildings popping up all over the street. This wasn’t the case. The city was block after block of modern storefronts – the vast majority of them clothing stores. I had also expected the traditional Chengdu tea houses (places to hang out and drink tea – and not eat or drink alcohol) to be everywhere. But they were not.

We eventually made it all the way to the center of town with its McDonald’s and KFC and Pizza Hut, its pedestrian shopping street, and one of the few remaining statues of Chairman Mao. He has his hand in the air as if waving to an immense throng. Of course, we took a picture of myself imitating Himself.

We were taken back to the apartment complex by a guy pedaling a tricycle with a seat for two on the back. This went against my democratic instincts but my wife insisted that she used to do it all the time and that it would be a good way to see some of the little streets of Chengdu. (I gave him a good tip, despite the fact that tips are not customary.) The guy took us past example after example of walled-in groups of dilapidated traditional-style houses. The walls around the neighborhoods meant that they were to be demolished. But we saw some that were still in use. It seemed that the tradition is to have a business on the first floor and an apartment upstairs, which explained the preponderance of businesses on the more modern streets.

Though all this was interesting and eye opening, we knew we were late for dinner, a very silly meal whose tale will have to wait for another day …
Chilly Chengdu Mornings

Waking up in a sweatshirt and pajama pants in Daisy’s parents room in Chengdu. No heat in the apartments and some windows open. The chill air making you not want come out from under the blankets.

A rooster’s repeated crowing, sounding more like a series of moans or howls than the cheery quick notes we do to imitate it. Where am I? Footsteps outside within the enclave of buildings. No sounds of cars.

The clank of a hammer against metal as someone roams by peddling his repair skills. Old pictures of Wan Zhi tacked to the otherwise bare wall. The mournful call of a man selling the newspaper.

The footsteps and high-pitched voices of the kids returning to the apartment from their aunt’s across the cement landing. My mother-in-law’s voice telling them to keep it down, believing we’re both still asleep …


Wednesday, February 19, 2003


Not Peking Duck But Rabbit Season

As the plane descended toward the runway in Chengdu, I had the exciting and somewhat frightening feeling that for the first time in my life I was entering the Third World, or, perhaps, the neighborhood of the Third World. My imagination was exaggerating the situation a bit, but, there seemed to be a different feeling in the plane than there had been in Beijing or Shanghai. My fellow passengers were not business people going to the country’s political or financial capital. They were Sichuan people returning home.

On the ground, my feelings seemed to be confirmed. The airport was darker than the others. The air was even smoggier than it had been in Beijing or Shanghai. Some of the lights on the front of the airport were not working.

We got inside and got our bags. My wife’s family was waiting for us among the crowd by the exit. I recognized them from the pictures I had seen. There were her mother and father. There were her brother and sister-in-law, and their 7-year-old daughter. I heard the high-pitched voice of a small Chinese boy and recognized its source: my wife’s 6-year-old son.

Since he hadn’t seen her in ore than three years, my wife jokingly asked him if he knew who she is.

-- Yes, he said. You’re my uncle’s sister.

Smart ass. Like his mother. And, truth be told, like his new stepfather.

Everyone was very friendly and welcoming, though it was a little awkward because they couldn’t speak any English and I only knew the Mandarin I had studied on the subway. I met everyone whom I had recognized plus an uncle and aunt who had insisted on coming to help pick us up. My wife did not cry and cry as she had often predicted she would. She remained calm. Our first few days had made her feel accustomed to being in China again.

We were ushered into my wife’s uncle’s car and soon were driving along a very dark highway. As I said the air seemed more polluted and everything seemed darker in Chengdu. The tinted windows of the car only accentuated this.

My wife’s son and niece were in the car and the former seemed quite curious about me. I tried my best to talk to him and the others in Chinese, though, not being used to foreigners at all, he seemed to have trouble understanding why I didn’t speak his language. I thought he was quite cute and a real character – much like his mother. He seemed very intelligent, too.

-- How come Chinese people study English but American people don’t study Chinese?

Very good question. It seems history is to blame, as the man said in Ulysses.

I remember passing a large silver-colored sculpture in the road and turning right. My wife told me that the sculpture marked one of the city’s circles – and the Dantean image seemed appropriate for this somewhat eerie ride. Before long, we were turning into an enclave of buildings – into what to me looked like an alley. There were people meandering along on foot and on bicycles and little stalls and booths. There were grey buildings on both sides of the road and laundry was hanging everywhere. My first reaction was to feel that I was in a bad neighborhood, though I knew intellectually that I was not. (Again, best to leave those assumptions back in NYC.)

We pulled up to a gate that had half of its bars missing. A guy in a very official looking uniform appeared. (I was somewhat used to this by now. The cops and security guards over there dress like our worst police-state nightmares.) Daisy’s uncle handed him a couple of bills and he let us through the gate. What we were entering or leaving I had no idea. It all looked bleak and somewhat scary to me.

The car stopped. We all got out and walked up a flight of cement steps. We went inside the apartment and everyone was accounted for except my father-in-law.

-- My Dad heard that you like to drink beer, Daisy translated. So, he went to get the rabbit head.

I didn’t understand what this meant at all. I hoped that if what she had said turned out to be literally true that there would be a rabbit body to go along with the head. Rabbit is strange enough but I can handle it.

They put me down on the couch and filled a glass of beer for me. Everyone sat around the coffee table in a circle: except for Daisy and her aunt who were standing on the other side of the room talking. We drank some toasts and I was offered a cigarette, as exactly as they do in Ireland. But I declined. My brother-in-law refilled my little glass whenever the beer supply ran low. Presently, my father-in-law entered the room with two plastic bags in his hands. Again, I held out hope that there would be a rabbit body in one of the bags.

My father-in-law came back in the room and placed on the coffee table two bowls filled with rabbits’ heads. Everyone looked at me and people gestured for me to select a rabbit head first. I couldn’t communicate with them very well and so had no idea how to explain that not only had I never eaten rabbit head before, I also had no idea how one should go about doing so. I called my wife over.

-- How do I do this?

She explained that you take the rabbit head by its rodent buck teeth, open its jaws, and gnaw on the meat close to the jaw bone. Her son demonstrated.

This was unreal. But what was I to do? When in Chengdu, do as the Chengduren. I opened the rabbit’s jaws and took a bite. It wasn’t bad. Daisy told me that one bowl was spicy and one was not. I told everyone I liked the spicy one better. That hot Sichuan taste was familiar to me from Daisy’s cooking.

So, my first night in Chengdu, I put all assumptions and apprehensions aside and ate a couple of rabbit heads. If that’s not love, ladies and gentlemen, what is? I mean, really.

Tuesday, February 18, 2003

Views of Varying Clarity

On our second day in Shanghai, after eating the amazing baozi breakfast again, we took the subway from Puxi (the older part of the city, which includes the very modern downtown area where we were staying – near People’s Park and the huge pedestrian shopping area Nanjing Road) to Pudong, the newer area that is undergoing major construction. (All of China seems to be under construction and they work 24 hours a day. Try that in New Yaawk. I mean, fuhgeddaboudit.) We visited the Oriental Pearl Tower, an impressive structure with two large purple “pearls” that serve as observation decks.

The atmosphere at the Pearl Tower was quite serious. I realized that this was my first direct experience (outside of the airport) of the Chinese government: the huge Chinese characters welcoming visitors were an imitation of Jiang Zemin’s handwriting. The tour itself made me feel a little sad because it was a perfect imitation of the World Trade Center. The tour guides said the exact same things – how fast the elevator was traveling, how high we were going, etc. (One thing that was missing was the word “welcome” in the impressive number of languages that the WTC elevators had – even the Irish language’s “Failte.”) The signs on the windows were the same as the WTC as well. They told you how far certain places were and what buildings and neighborhoods of Shanghai you were looking at.

I enjoyed seeing the snaking brown river and some of the new space-age architecture of the city. But, the view was obstructed by lot of smog. I spotted a large bridge only at the very end of our visit because it had been obscured by the clouds of pollution.

I also felt sorry for the people who had once lived in Pudong and who had been moved out so that the government could build this showplace for foreigners. The skyscrapers seemed 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!"

We also toured the History Museum in the basement of the Pearl Tower. It was quite interesting and impressive, though its propaganda was showing. They really hate that period when the Brits took over parts of China. But, as an Irishman, how can I blame them?

We took a ferry back across the river to Puxi, which was quite fun. Then we walked to Yuyuan Gardens, a beautiful temple built about 200 years ago by the former governor of Sichuan. On the way, we walked through some little streets with poor crumbling houses and a lot of storefront businesses. Again there was the rubble of construction around. There were people going by slowly on bikes and there was the occasional car or van that came through. All kinds of groceries were for sale in the open storefronts. People stared at us, particularly me, shamelessly. I heard a couple of people say the word, “laowai” (Non-Asian foreigner). I don’t suppose many tourists walk that way, especially laowai holding hands with a Chinese girl. (Couples generally don’t show even that much affection in public in China.) Still, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip thus far. I got to walk some real old streets where the regular people live and try to make a living!
Yu Yuan a Napkin?

After that interesting walk through the dirty and quite real little streets of Shanghai, we found our way back to the shopping district where we had eaten the evening before. It’s a modern area with all kinds of little shops and restaurants, but the architecture is an imitation of the Chinese temple or garden style.

We found a cafeteria and decided to have a snack and some tea. At first, this was not as relaxing as it sounds. Getting the food was a bewildering experience. This large cafeteria was lined with an amazing array of delicious Chinese treats on small plates. It was also lunch time. So, there was a lot of noise and commotion from the diners and there was a decent-sized crowd to navigate through as we picked our dishes from the incredible smorgasbord.

In many places in China, including this one, you have to buy napkins. So, after we sat down, I went up to purchase a package for us. Daisy had taught me how to ask for them in Chinese and I repeated the sentence to myself as I crossed the large room. When I got to the cashier I managed to blurt out the question. But the young man responded in English.

– What?!

I repeated my request in English.

After lunch we toured the Yuyuan Gardens. It was quite a beautiful place, probably the finest example of a garden that we saw in China. There was the lovely Chinese architecture that I enjoyed so much – the curving corners of the roofs, the little statues on the tops and in the middle of the roofs, the oddly shaped doorways, the reliefs and statues. There was also a pond with large gold fish in it and trees and boulders arranged to provide a pleasing view and a contemplative atmosphere. We took some serious and some silly pictures and video.

That night we had dinner with Daisy’s cousins who live in Shanghai. They spoke in Sichuan dialect and I was lost through much of the conversation. Afterwards, we got a taxi driver to help us find O’Malley’s Pub. We wanted to try a Shanghai Guinness. Fortunately, he took us in the wrong direction and we were able to see the Bund, the waterfront section of the city that features 1920s European architecture. It was a spectacular sight – with lights shining on the fronts of the buildings and with the spanking new skyscrapers and the Oriental Pearl Tower illuminated on the other side of the river.

The pub was less than spectacular. It was a nice place with Irish countryside motifs but it was not very lively and the Guinness was terrible. After one pint, I switched to Tsingtao. There was a white guy playing an acoustic guitar singing the songs that white guys always play on acoustic guitars. Saints be praised, we were spared from having to sit through “American Pie.”

The next day we were to leave behind the international cities of Beijing and Shanghai and fly to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province and the city in which I would meet my in-laws and Daisy’s 6-year-old son …

Friday, February 14, 2003


Baozi and Bronzes

We got to Shanghai late and, still exhausted from the trip to China and the festivities afterwards, got some sleep. The next day we went to Yong He for breakfast. Yong He specializes in bowls of sweet soy milk – a local breakfast treat. I preferred the salty version. What I really loved was the baozi, the steamed buns stuffed with crab meat. They were incredible! I could have eaten them all day!

We visited the Shanghai Museum in Remin Park near our hotel and were amazed by it also, especially by the bronzes from the 11th Century BC. There were wine and cooking vessels showing intricate work. I loved the symmetry of some of the designs and the use of the dragon and phoenix symbols that are so traditional and important to Chinese art.

The museum building itself is beautiful, incorporating the Chinese idea of Heaven’s being round and the earth’s being square. We also enjoyed the paintings, the furniture, and the display of minority culture clothes and other materials.

I managed to say that I enjoyed the museum in Chinese to a woman who worked there. She told us that the French (Faguoren) can spend the whole day there. The Japanese (Ribenren), on the other hand, are finished in 30 minutes.

We had an early dinner in the shopping area of modern buildings with old Chinese-temple architecture. More fabulous baozi and lots of other delicious xiao chi (small dishes). Afterwards, we were so tired that we took a “nap” that lasted until the next morning.

Thursday, February 13, 2003


The Trip Over: A Mimihoohoo Start

It occurred to me that I never posted the story about our trip over to China. Well, here it is.

Our journey to China turned out to be quite an adventure. My leaving work was delayed by last minute newsletter changes and technical problems. Luckily, we did make it to the airport two hours before the flight was to leave.

However, once our scheduled flight time arrived, it was clear that the flight was going to be delayed. Air China made announcements in Chinese and English, but the English pronunciation was poor and the airline’s PA system was crackling. It seemed that a screw or some part of the plane was missing and that they could not take off until they found it.

-- Take your time! was my attitude. Take your time!

We repaired to the nearby bar and had some large Brooklyn lagers. We met a couple from Dallas, Scotland – near Inverness. We also chatted a bit with their friends from London. We joked with the bartender that we would come back to the bar, pretending we were going to take a flight, and just hang out with this international crowd. This was starting out as a mimihoohoo trip after all!

The plane left 3 hours late and we were seated near a guy from Shanghai, whom Daisy had befriended by the departure gate. (A bunch of people had stood needlessly in line talking together in Chinese. I had chosen to wander around the duty free shop and avoid the line. I had felt a little apprehensive about being cooped up in the plane for so long and wanted to avoid claustrophobia while I could.) Because of this delay, we were going to miss our flight to Shanghai. But that didn’t matter to us. As a matter of fact, we were happy to have an extra day in Beijing to do some sightseeing.

The long flight was not as bad as I had expected. I read and drank beer and slept a little bit. When we got to Beijing it was another long process to get everyone together and get us to the hotel. However, I somehow remained very patient through all this.

When we finally did arrive at the hotel and get settled, we went downstairs for something to eat, met up with our Shanghai friend and went to the bar. We were joined by a Taiwanese guy who liked to show off how much money he had and by a nice young Chinese woman who was married to a guy from Chendgu, Daisy's native city.

We hung out in the quiet hotel bar until 4 AM, having slipped the bartenders some tips in order to keep the place open. By the end of the night, because of my study of (and surprising skill in) Chinese and my interest in the culture, our Shanghai friend dubbed me:

-- A good son of China.

Monday, February 10, 2003

Things that the China trip taught me to appreciate:

-- Toilets you can sit down on

-- Toast

-- Ice Cubes

-- No-frills neighborhood bars where strangers can meet and talk or not, as they choose

-- Drinking tap water

-- Toilets you can sit down on

-- American music: even innoucuous songs by Fleetwood Mac seem heaven sent and full of texture and imagination compared to the steady diet of saccharine pop ballads in China

-- Indoor heating

-- Potato chips

-- Being able to take a relaxed shower in a warm room

-- Privacy

-- Toilets you can sit down on

-- American music

Hide and Seek

I've written about the quick friendship that developed between the little kids and me in Chengdu. But how, you may ask, did I manage to communicate with them when they speak little English and I little Chinese?

At first, it was very difficult. When I met Daisy's son at the airport, he was flummoxed by my inability to understand his Chinese. Not having met any foreigners, he was unused to adults who couldn't speak his language. He didn't have the skill of filling in the missing pieces in my broken Chinese, as we are so used to doing when people speak broken English. Before we left the airport, I went to the bathroom and he came with me. He kept trying to say something to me as we were heading back to rejoin the group and I had to tell him, "Wo bu dong nide hua." (I don't understand what you're saying.)

The next morning it was the same thing, though we did manage to communicate enough to play with his race cars in his grandparents' little back yard. We took turns saying, "One, two, three ... go!" and "Yi, er, san ... zuo!" and zooming the cars back and forth. Still, it was tough when he tried to talk to me and I couldn't understand.

Once we went back inside, however, I hit on something that worked truly like a charm. I picked up my Chinese book and told him in Chinese what it was -- "Wode Zhongwen shu." In a matter of seconds, he was sitting on my lap showing off his Chinese reading skills and we practiced repeating things from the book in English and Chinese. Soon, he took out a Disney English book that he had and we went through some of the exercises in there. Mimi joined in on some of the fun as well, though she was somewhat shy at first.

This was miraculous progress, but what really solidified the friendships occurred later that night. Daisy had bought lunchboxes and thermoses for the two kids and the thermoses had come wrapped in cardboard bands. I don't remember exactly how this happened but sometime that night, after an extremely silly and somewhat mimhoohoo dinner, one of the cardboard bands ended up around my head, transforming me into a blind man who had to go find the hiding kids.

I would walk around the apartment, calling out, "Wan Zhi zai nar?" and "Mimi zai nar?" (Where is Wan Zhi? Where is Mimi?) I could see a little bit through the space between the bottom of the band and my nose and made an effort to catch one kid and then the other rather than the same one over and over.

Anyway, this "Hide and Seek" game became a regular routine and it was while we played it that I earned the nickname, "Pangdudu!"

Saturday, February 08, 2003

We're back in the USA and back in New York, New York! The flight was painless and it feels good to be home. This morning we were thrilled to walk around the neighborhood again and to admire this, literally, spectacular City from a snow-covered Central Park.

Here are a few unusual and moving moments from the trip that I need to write down:

We had our first hotpot in Chengu in a place called Padzi Huo Guo (Cripple's Hot Pot -- its owner has a disability.) By Western standards, the place was chaotic. Because we were in a hot pot restaurant, most of the table tops were taken up by boiling vats. The place was crowded and cacophanous. People were talking (in Sichuan dialect) and laughing at the tops of their lungs. Some soldiers sat at one table laughing and eating. There were families and groups of tough-looking guys. Waiters and waitresses were hustling around with plates full of strange foods to be dumped into the hotpots. Among the unusual foods on our table were goose intestines, little snakes, and pigs' brains (none of which I touched. After the rabbit-head incident, there is no question that I am a sport. But I have to draw a line somewhere. Hold the pigs' brains, please.)

Daisy's son was seated next to me and I clowned around with him as we ate and drank. In addition to silly faces and other nonsense, I made use of my limited Chinese to communicate with him. I started asking him if he liked certain things.

-- Ni xihuan huo guo? (Do you like hotpot?) etc etc.

-- Wo xihuan. (I like it.) He answered.

Then in answer to one of my questions, he answered playfully, while looking me right in the eye:

-- Wo xihuan ... Wo xihuan ... Wo xihuan ... Wo xihuan baba! (I like Daddy, i.e., ... me.)

Later, having a beer at a Chengdu bar, I thought that perhaps the purpose of all of my studying of Chinese on the subway had been for this moment.

****

On a Sunday afternoon in Chengdu, we took about 30 of Daisy's family and friends out to a hotel that provides lunch and dinner, mah jong, and a karaoke room for one flat fee. During the lunch, I had wanted to drink tea but I was overruled. They poured beer into my glass and we drank toast after toast. I was even made to drink some of the rice wine liquor (jiu). This went on to such an extent that I did get a little mimihoohoo. So did a lot of other people. Before I knew it, we had Daisy's granduncle singing some Peking Opera (my suggestion) and I was toasting people with "May you be 40 years in Heaven before the Devil knows you're dead." Other people sang. We went from table to table (3 in all) and drank toasts. Every time my glass was empty, someone immediately refilled it. The Peking-Opera singing was unforgettable!

****

Later, at the same Sunday-afternoon party, I was watching Daisy play mah jong and started to feel a little tired. I decided to go into the now-empty karoake room to have a rest. I fell asleep. At some point after that, I was awakened by someone putting a large coat over me. I opened my eyes to see Daisy's young cousin, a very lovely 17-year-old girl. She seemed like a beautiful fairy from some Oriental folk tale (if they do, in fact, involve fairies) or from a dream. She spoke no English, as far as I knew. She was shy and quiet, very innocent compared to her American counterparts. She seemed bursting with life, curiosity, and youth and yet too shy or too unready to strut onto the world's stage. Yet, what a sweet gesture!

-- Thank you! I said, still sleepy enough to forget to speak Chinese.

Embarrassed a little, I added

-- I was just taking a little rest.

She flitted out of the room without saying a word. Later, I found out that Daisy had told her to put the coat over me and that when the girl returned she said she had heard me say, "Thank you" but that I had said something else in English that she hadn't understood.

****

On the morning after our New Year's celebration in which Daisy's uncle had shown me and read me his poetry, he put his hand on my shoulder, gripping it like he meant it and calling me, "Wode hao pengyou!" My good friend! Fellow poets from opposite ends of the earth and opposing political systems.

****

On our first night in China, we hung out in the hotel bar until 4 AM with some people who had been on our plane. One guy, a former Shanghai resident, had been with us from the line in the JFK airport. He appreciated my efforts and my accomplishment in Chinese. He liked that I am interested in the culture and have an open mind. Before the night was over, he bought a round of beers and told me that I am "a good son of China."

I used an expression that is not used very often and can sum up my attitude to all of these experiences:

-- Feichang xiexie! (Many thanks!)

Monday, February 03, 2003

i probably will not be able to post anything while we are in beijing. but on friday 3/7 i will be heading for the international runway and will soon thereafter be back in the usa, where hamburgers sizzle on an open grill night and day. (before leaving the us, i imitated dufu and now as i start the journey back, i'm paraphrasing chuck berry.) so, until we meet again:

a hoopety ha! ... a hoopety ha! ... a hoopety ha! ...

i am back at the internet cafe in chengdu and the capital letters are not working well. so, if you'll forgive me, i won't bother with them.

here is some writing I did at the chengdu crowne plaza bar over some cups of tea on 1/31. wo taitai shi mai dongxi le. (my wife was shopping. wo bu ai mai dongxi. i don't love shopping.) .....

in my first post from china i said that i had left all assumptions back in new york. i thought i should explain this. somehow a new patience has taken up residence within me. it feels as if my vertebrae had been a column of knots -- of aggressiveness, irritation, tension, and intolerance -- and that these knots loosened and became untied as soon as i enterted the baggage-check line at jfk. i tolerate and have tolerated things during this trip that would make me get up and storm out of the room, restaurant, hotel lobby, etc. at home. with the loosening of those vertebral knots, i seem to have instantly taken on the role of observer and experiencer. even judgment seems suspended for the most part. i had known for some time that i would be experienceing a place that would be more another planet than another country, and so, i suppose, i had programmed myself to accept .... and to watch, listen, taste, feel, and, yes, to smell .... knowing that this experience would be of a limited duration and that soon enough I would be back in a world i am accustomed to and in which i could get annoyed at behavior and events that differ from the norm or from what is comfortable or convenient for me.

another change that took place within me almost instantly was my sudden (and reciprocated) affection for daisy's son and niece. afterwards, i tried to think of a way to describe what had happened to me and the most apt phrase seemed to be, ''falling in love." i just fell in love with those kids at first sight. they seemed to be happy kids, satisfied with their lives, yet curious, bright, and funny. but i think what reached out to me the most was the aura of sadness i could perceive around them. both of them, wan zhi (daisy's 6-year-old son) and mimi (daisy's sister-in-law's daughter from a previous marriage) have seen their parents divorced and have spent a lot of time with their grandparents. mimi's real father takes her out about once a week. wan zhi's real father never does. but both kids, it seemed to me from the start, (and there was not one iota of cultural, political, or linguistic difference here whatsoever ) needed a father to play with, to pay attention to them, to have fun with them. and it just so happened that i was available.

2/4 addedum: like many love-at-first-sight affairs, the passion fizzled after a time. wan zhi seemed to lose interest in me after a couple of days and i have gotten annoyed at some of his brattiness and cry-baby antics. still, this is not to say that there will not be a difficult scene at the airport this evening as we depart for beijing.

In other news, yesterday I got a Chinese name. I am not sure about the mysterious processes involved in determining such a thing but Daisy, her son, and brother created a name for me yesterday as we drove back from Zigong. It is Xue Rongyi. The first part is Daisy's family name. Rongyi means "easy." (No, it doesn't mean that.) It means I am easy to deal with and easy to make friends with. So, I got that going for me. (Incidentally, you can't see pictures of the Dalai Lama here, let alone caddy for him.)

We went to Daisy's uncle's and it was as expected. Plenty of delicious food and lots of drink. The funny thing is that they pound liquor and beer all through lunch but then stop. And at dinner no one drank at all. (They are tough on drinking and driving here.) Daisy's uncle gave us a gorgeous painting which he painted over the last few days. It incorporates Daisy's name in Chinese and, for the first time ever for the painter, uses Roman letters -- for mine. It is a beautiful traditional Chinese painting with flowers and butterflies. Daisy's mother's family is quite artistic as it turns out. Most of them have been involved in Peking Opera. One is a painter. Then there is their brother-in-law who writes poetry and had to burn his notebooks. There is also Xiao Jiujiu (Little Uncle) who does his performing at the dinner table. He is a very funny guy and he certainly enjoys a drink. He and I became good buddies. When he ate dinner with me almost two weeks ago he said it was his first ever with a foreigner. Today I told him he is now (after 4 meals with me) a regular international guy. The friendship is quite silly as he speaks no English at all except, "YES!" He tries to communicate by speakng Chinese with a British accent.

Afterwards, we stopped at a place where you can get your feet washed and a massage. It was yet another strange and interesting experience. The young girls who gave the massages were very nice and professional. (They DON''T take tips. There was nothing sexual. You only take your shoes and socks off.) They studied at the local university of Chinese medicine. The whole thing was a bit awkward, though, (partly because I was the first laowai to ever come to the place) and pleasant as the massage and foot bath were, I got a bit bored by it after a while. The whole thing lasted two hours, which was about twice as long as I would have liked.

I did hear the bad news about the space shuttle. Of course, according the Chinese TV news, nothing bad whatsoever has happened in China.

They do have a crazy talking monkey on Chinese TV. He is a fairy tale character and has various adventures with other characters from the Three Kingdoms period.

Tomorrow it's off to Beijing. Not sure if I'll be able to post anything more when we are there. I do have a lot of stuff I have written by hand. I will type it up later.

Anyway, we'll see how Great this Wall is!

Sunday, February 02, 2003

Dag! With everything else that's been going on I forgot to mention one little thing. We were on TV! The first night we had hotpot here (I think there have been 4 so far) a young woman and a cameraman came into the restaurant to do a story about how people were celebrating the New Year. (A bit early for this but as I said she was young.) No one in the chaotic place took the bait. Then Daisy and her son called them over, "Interview us!" (The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.) When they saw the laowai in the group they couldn't pass it up.

They asked me how I liked the hotpot and I did my best Sichuan dialect "Bas di ban! Hoss le hun!" Then Daisy took over and did a little explaining.

About a week later her friend told us that he had seen us on the local news on a Sunday night.

Luckily, no international incidents yet. Xiexie!
The Chinese New Year Celebration was excellent. We went to Daisy's parents' house and had dish after dish after dish of food. Of course, there was plenty to drink as well. The Chinese custom is to pound glasses of beer or shots fraternity style while having dinner. As you well know, I was able to uphold the honor of the USA and Ireland both. I even tried some of the local Chinese jiu (rice wine liquor). It is powerful stuff. It sent one guy to bed after dinner. But the evening was mostly about food and fireworks. Daisy's parents live in a neighborhood of grey cement buildings with clotheslines everywhere. It looks like a very poor neighborhood to an American but it seems it really isn't. The neighborhood echoed with fireworks throughtout the night (and indeed even today 2/2). I was a little uncomfortable with the kids being so reckless with the pyrotechnics but they seemed to be all right. Daisy's son did hurt his neck at one point. The New Year here is also about TV. They watch a cornball TV show for hours on end. Musical numbers with pretty girls in long dresses, military uniform song and dances, comedy sketches out of the Honeymooners, and sentiment, sentiment, sentiment. The Chinese seem to outdo even America in corny sentimentality.

I got a chance to talk with Daisy's uncle who is something of a poet - though he has no friends in publishing and has no hopes about getting into print. He told me how he had to burn a three- or four-foot stack of diaries during the cultural revolution, afraid someone would denouce him as a rightist. He actually showed me a poem he wrote the other day and read it to me. Amazing and sad.

The next day we headed with Daisy's brother and the two kids to Zigong, hometown of dinosaurs. Kong long! (pron. "Kung lung," literally "scary dragon"). They have a dinosaur museum where they had found the actual fossils. Pretty cool stuff. We stayed with Daisy's sister -in-law's family. Another New Year's dinner that couldn't be beat. (I could write a book just about the dinners.) Then off to the lantern festival. They had light displays depicting fairy tales and bellydancers and Roman arches. A beautiful show. Indeed a small world after all.

Then this morning came a very sad moment. We had to say goodbye to my little friend Mimi, Daisy's 7-year-old niece. I had called her wode xing xiao pengyou (my new little friend/girlfriend). She and I had become great buddies and had just had a fun morning goofing around on the couch and exchanging Chinese and English words. She showed me a video which she uses to learn English and she, Daisy's son, and myself were all lying on the bed watching it and repeating the names of animals. Then the bad news came. We had to leave and Mimi was to stay in Zigong with her mom. Chinese people don't show their emotions much but this was a meltdown by any standards. She just stood by the car with her arms at her sides and cried and moaned. Everyone said it was all because she liked me so much. (We're about at the same maturity level.) Daisy got so upset that she grabbed her and took her into the car saying she would come with us. The two of them were in tears in the back seat. I am not given to tears but I had a hard time with this scene as well. I certainly didn't like to say goodbye to my new little friend and the timing of it was a shock to me. (My Chinese is not that good!) Anyway, she was still bawling and I still had a lump in my throat as we left. Her stepfather said she had never shown so much emotion before. About a half hour or so later he got a call on his cell phone telling us that she was ok. Bye bye, Gwai Gwai (sweetheart)!

We drove back to Chengdu and the countryside was somewhat attractive -- as opposed to the shocking conditions I had seen north of the city. Still it is hard to see anything with the smog. This evening we headed for a barbecue treat but the place is closed for New Year. (They have a week off.) We had a hotpot instead and it was excellent. Very spicy and a nice, warm (most buildings have no heat) clean and comfortable place.

I hope my descriptions of China have not been overly negative. In some ways the system here works and is admirable -- just as chopsticks can pick up food as well as a knife and fork. (Though it would never work in individualistic America.) The main problems are the govt. control of information from outside and censorship. They are making great progress here. They ape American achievements as they misinform the populace concerning what America is about.

Tomorrow we head to Daisy's uncle's for lunch and drink drink drink (pron. "huh luh huh luh huh luh ...") I'm sure. The day after that we head to Beijing to see the Great Wall. My only concern is that it might turn out to be just a pretty good wall.