Category Archives: Living in China

Propaganda of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution

I’m fascinated by propaganda style art.  Its striking colors, bold lines, symbolism, and even unintentional humour all create an attractive sight.  I guess they’re similar to political cartoons, but of course the politics are all one-sided.  I often wonder what kind of effect (if any) each had on passersby. 

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) in China, Chairman Mao set out to eradicate all traces of capitalism and tried to unite a new China under his style of socialism.  Among his many techniques was a massive propaganda poster campaign, which created hundreds of individual designs all carrying messages of hope, unity, Maoist ideas, declarations against enemies (US and Russia at the time), and rally slogans.  It’s all very serious and even confrontational, but looking at them, you get a sense that people really might have felt a strong connection through the illustrations and words.  Besides, even if you don’t agree with the intent, it’s still art.  Feel free to leave any thoughts or comments (captions) below.

And at last:  a picture of Chairman Mao’s body (preserved) laid to rest in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

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Busting Out to Teach

When one of my students comes to my class late, I always ask, “What’s your excuse?”  This is not only a valid question of judgement, but also an exercise in real world speaking.  The usual answers are:  I slept too long — I couldn’t find my bike — I was waiting for my roommate — or my personal favourite — I didn’t eat breakfast so I can’t walk good.  Then I ask the rest of the class if they think it’s a reasonable excuse.  Well, yesterday morning I got a taste of my own medicine, but I had the end-all excuse to put them all to rest.

That morning I woke up a little later than usual, 7:20, and I crawled out of bed to take a shower and get ready for my 8 o’clock class.  Next to my bedroom is my office, which has a door leading out to the main area of my apartment.  Last week there was a burglary in one of my foreign colleagues apartment, where, in the middle of the night, the robbers busted through some steel bars, which encase most windows here, and stole his laptop and some cash while he was sleeping.  Since then I’ve been sleeping with a knife and a clothing iron next to my bed, waiting for their return.  I’ve also been locking my office door for extra effort on their part. 

That morning, I unlocked my office door and turned the knob when…nothing.  The door didn’t budge.  I pushed and pulled while jiggling it with no success.  I was thinking — Shit.  Alright China, you got me again.  Now what.  And because of the steel bars over the windows, there was no way I could even crawl out.

I called my class monitor, Jimmy, to tell him I was going to be late and to keep the students from leaving.  I also asked him if he could call the security guards and see if they had a spare key or perhaps some ancient Chinese secret of opening my front door to try the jammed door from the other side.  He said he’d come to the teacher’s village to see what he could do.  I was a little irritated, but even more, I was just enjoying the moment because I reveled in the thought of what was going to happen next.

Jimmy showed up ten minutes later and I could hear them trying to open my front door.  No luck.  Well, at least the fact they couldn’t get that door open was a little comforting.  He came around to the back of the apartment block and was yelling at my second floor window. 

“Lance!  Lance!  They can’t open it,”  he said as I came to the window.  He was trying to contain his laughter.

“Alright.”  So, dreadfully, I had to do what I didn’t want to….call Mindy.  She’s the head of the Foreign Affairs Office and my boss.  Let’s put it this way, you don’t want to talk to her unless you absolutely have to because…well, she’s just, she’s like a Chinese version of Nurse Ratched in Keasey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  That said, I dialed her number and waited.

“Yes Lance.”  She never says hello.

“Hi Mindy.  How are you?”

“Mmm…mmm,” she murmured.  “What is it?”

“Well, uh, I’ve got a little problem with my door….,” I told her the jist of it.

“I’m busy right now.  I can’t help you until 11:30,” she replied irritably.

“But I’ve got class in ten minutes.  What should I do?”

“Just break out of your apartment.  I have to go.  Bye.”

I smiled.  I looked down at Jimmy and said, “I’ll be out in a few minutes.”

Ever since watching COPS as a kid, I’ve always wanted to kick a door in.  The feeling of busting down someone’s door and coming in like a badass, eyes wild like a madman.  Only here, the other side of the door was just my living room and I had no one to surprise.  But, I was barefoot and all of my shoes were out by my front door….then I remembered.  In the cabinet of my office bookshelf, I had stored my fancy dress shoes I never wear.  They were a $200 gift from my ex-Korean girlfriend and I’ve probably worn them two times in two years.  I pulled one of the dusty ones out and put it on, finally giving me a reason to wear it again.  Showtime.

I took a few steps back and booted the door square beside the knob thinking it would gloriously bust free on the first kick.  Not.  I must’ve kicked it 20 times, wood chips and paint flying everywhere, before the inside lock finally broke off. 

I quickly got dressed and met Jimmy downstairs.

“How did you get out?” he asked curiously.

“Ancient American secret,” I smiled.

I was 30 minutes late to class and most of the students were half asleep or texting on their phones. 

As I walked in they all asked in unison, “What’s your excuse?”

I didn’t have to lie.

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China’s Development Ghosts

It is said that China houses two-thirds of the world’s construction cranes.  It’s not hard to see this, even when living in a medium-tier city like Huizhou.  Everywhere you look, the towering yellow steel overhangs bamboo-scaffold high-rise apartments, stylish office buildings, and designer brand shopping malls.  The development here is staggering and overwhelming; so much that you can’t help but wonder where all the money and resources come from.

But one thing that baffles me is when these buildings are finished, what clientage will buy and keep these projects from becoming white elephants?  The biggest and eeriest example is the New South China Mall in Dongguan, a city of 10 million in Guangdong province, which opened in 2005.  It’s the largest mall in the world at two times the size of Minnesota’s Mall of America, complete with 659,612 square-meters of space, a 25 m replica of the Arc de Triomphe, a 2.1 km canal with gondolas, a replica of Venice’s St. Mark’s Bell Tower, and a 553 m indoor/outdoor roller coaster.  As grand and impressive as it is, 99% of its leaseable space remains unoccupied, save for only the entrance that has a few western fast-food joints and the massive parking garage, which, for lack of customer vehicles, has now been turned into a go-kart track.

Here in Huizhou there are at least five new 5-star hotels being built at the moment, yet the original and first 5-star, The Kande International, on average only has about a 35% occupancy rate.  Walk through the big double doors and it’s fully staffed; hoards of employees dressed to hilt in formal attire poised and ready for customers.  They seem to be bored and just going through the motions as if their only job was just to look the part.  When a customer walks in they jump at the chance to deliver their service, seemingly overjoyed that something is actually happening.

Another example is a 9-story shopping plaza, Rainbow, located in the heart of downtown Huizhou.  It houses all the expensive (real) designer brands such as Nike, Levis, Gucci, etc… among others.  It’s strange walking through the shops because even though they, like the Kande, are fully (even overly) staffed, you’d be lucky to spot a customer actually buying something, let alone even browsing. They’re more like commercial museums or simulations of capitalism, where anyone can have a gander and only dream that one day they could actually purchase even the cheapest thing available.

I went there a couple of days ago with my girlfriend just to kill some time.  We strolled through each floor and sometimes something would catch my eye and I would step in and take a look.  Everytime I was immediately surrounded by at least a couple of the store’s employees practically breathing down my neck and following me around asking what I’m looking for or if I’d like to try it on.  Like the Kande, they seem starved to try out their customer service skills.  Even with my monthly income, which is considered upper-class here, I know I would be a fool to actually buy an item (especially when I can find a near-perfect copy for a fraction of the cost).

We were hungry so we went up to the food court on the 9th floor for dinner.  When we reached the top of the escalator and entered, most of the tables were full.  I thought, “Oh, so this is where everybody’s at.”  But on a closer look, I was wrong.  At every table sat groups of uniformed employees eating their Tupperware dinners they brought from home.  Out of the four spaces for restaurants, only two of them were in service and yet no one was eating their food.  The cooks and staff stood waiting at each window like a stiff toll-booth employee, only the traffic here had never come.  We walked over to a Korean restaurant on the far end of the dining area.  All ten long tables were completely empty except for one, where two waitresses were sitting and stitching away on an embroidery quilt.  The three cooks  gathered around a computer watching one of them play a shooting game.  As we walked in, they immediately stood to attention, smiled and welcomed us to their empty establishment. 

At this point, I was laughing in disbelief.  What the hell is going on here?  I felt like I was in a surreal post-apocolyptic dream where the whole world had been destroyed and for some reason, this mall had been spared and its inhabitants oblivious to the catastrophe around them.  I slowly ate my kimchi and soup while staring out the window at all the yellow cranes in the distance jutting up through the skyline. 

I had goosebumps as I looked at my girlfriend and half-jokingly, half-terrfyingly said, “This is the future.”

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Yes, I’m a Real Person

Last Friday was surreal. Izel, the head of another school I work at called me up the day before and asked if I could go visit a Kindergarten somewhere outside of the city. Since I don’t work on Friday afternoons at the university, I said why not?

We met at her school, a private one run almost completely by her, and I was greeted by the three other teachers working there.  All of them happen to be from Africa.   Two of them, a younger woman and man from Ghana, and another early thirties guy from Kenya. They all work under Izel, who is originally from the Philippines.

I asked what the plan was and she said we were being picked up by one of her adult students, a chinese man who owns an export garment factory and two kindergarten schools. We were to go visit both of his schools because the children there had never seen foreigners before and he thought it would be a good idea to broaden their horizons.

We arrived at the first school, which was in Shiba, about an hour northeast of Huizhou.  Shiba is a very small town, more like a village where the wealthiest in town are lucky to drive cars and if you have a motorbike, you’re doing pretty good.  The kindergarten building was shaped sort of like a castle and had cartoons of Mickey & Minnie Mouse (among others) painted huge all over it. 

As an attendant opened the gate to let us drive into the courtyard, situational thoughts ran:   A Filipina, Kenyan, two Ghanaians and an American walk into a Chinese kindergarten.  Yeah, the joke’s on us.  There was a big red banner in Chinese that said, “Welcome American Teachers to our school!”  We were all American in their eyes. 

We piled out of the cars and stood in the courtyard, trying to figure out exactly what was going on.   An attractive Chinese woman in her early 30s came over to us and said hello.  She also happened to be one of the heads of the school.  She had a camera in hand and immediately started taking pictures of us; no doubt with the intent of publishing them to attract more enrollments. 

After our arrival photo shoot, I walked into one of the classrooms in session and introduced myself to the little ones.

“Hellooo!!!”  I waved with both hands and smiled as wide as my cheeks could go.

The 5-6 year olds immediately looked up from their desks and gave me a blank stare of reserved curiosity, the kind of look clowns are probably used to getting.  The Chinese teachers asked them to follow their lead, “Good afternoon Teacher!!!”

Nothing.  A few of the kids started laughing at me, others just gazed at this weird thing standing in front of them.  So, I put up a hand and happily walked around trying to give them high-fives.  A few of them held up their little paws, a couple looked on the brink of tears, and one boy even stood up on his chair and stretched out his hand, anticipating my arrival to his side. 

At this point, my six-foot-two colleague from Ghana, we’ll call him Terry, came into the classroom and let out a big “Hellooo!!!” to which the kids turned around and once again became dazed by this new being.  Unfortunately for Terry, some of the children started crying and screaming, yet most of them just looked on in surprise.  The Chinese woman with the camera was behind him taking shots of us left and right.

Terry and I went from classroom to classroom doing the same thing and with the same results:  crying, screaming, laughter, and bewildered curiosity.  I felt like some kind of strange being from another world.  One of the kids even pulled on my nose, as if trying to yank away my “mask”.

After making our rounds playing, singing songs and dancing (I did the moonwalk to amazed laughter), we were told that we needed to stand near the school gate to wave goodbye to the kids and their parents as they came to pick them up.  Of course, this was a bit of a plug for the owner as a way to show the parents his school was special in terms of learning english.

As we stood there smiling and waving, a crowd of people, young and old, started to gather outside the gate.  They all looked on with the same faces as the children we’d just met.  Some of them yelled “Hey man!” or “Nice to meet you!”  I must have posed for over a hundred photos with the children and their parents.  One grandfather rode in on a bike and was looking at us like he’d just seen a ghost.  He kept pointing at us, but mostly he was curious about Terry.  He kept rubbing his face with both hands, as if he was trying to rub something off.  Finally, he walked over to Terry and took a closer look.  Terry speaks pretty good Chinese, and he thinks he was saying, “Why don’t you wash your face?” 

Terry just shrugged it off and laughed and leaned in to tell me grandpa smelled like he’d been drinking all afternoon.  The old man went in to pick up his grandson and came back, slowly lifting him up and setting him in a seat on the back of his bicycle.  No he isn’t!  we both thought as he got ready to ride away, the little one holding onto his backsides.  They slowly wobbled away out the gate and disappeared.  Just to think, this is probably an everyday occurence for the little fella.

As the children started thinning out, there was still a pretty good size crowd of curious onlookers.  The woman with the camera tried to tell them to go away, but had no luck, only laughing when she was walking back from them.  We asked her why she was laughing so much and she said that one of the onlookers asked her, “Zhengde ren 正地人?”  Which roughly translates into “Are they real people?”

Terry and I burst into our own laughter and decided to start walking around like robots to add to the moment.  I couldn’t keep a straight face as the last parents and their kids waved goodbye to us. 

After about four hours of being something else, my cheeks never hurt so much.

P.S.  I’m trying to get a hold of the pictures to post here.  Fingers crossed.

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Fearing the Unknown in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan

What you’re about to read was one of the most terrifying nights of my life.  While traveling through Yunnan in China, I stayed at a youth hostel in Jinghong, Xishuangbanna, a city that has historical influence from not only China, but also from Thailand and Laos.  Even though it’s still a Chinese city, it feels very southeast asian.

I arrived in Jinghong at the crack of dawn on a sleeper bus from Kunming.  I had written some information about a youth hostel here and asked a woman at the bus station where it was.  She pointed the way just down the street and I headed towards it.  After about a five-minute walk from the station, I found it and checked in.  The young woman at the desk didn’t speak much english, and she seemed very annoyed that I was bothering her for a room at such an early hour.  I paid 40 yuan ($6) for a dorm bed and made my way over to it.

When I opened the door and walked in there were four beds lined up against the wall.  I noticed an older western man sleeping in the second to last bed, so I tried to be as quiet as I could while unpacking and taking a shower.  When I got out of the shower, he had just woken up and was sitting at the edge of his bed.  As a backpacker, you know the situation.  The usual, Hello…Where you from?…Where you traveling?…blah blah blah.  I usually break the ice first, but I was so tired that I didn’t really want to deal with the usual banter.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat and stared at the wall.  So I crawled into bed without a word and went to sleep for a couple of hours.

I woke up around 9 and got ready to go out to get some much-needed breakfast and look up some information about crossing into Laos.  When I came out of the room, the man was sitting on a bench outside, drinking coffee and listening to a small short-wave radio which was broadcasting some news in english.  I thought coffee was a good idea so I went into the office and got some and came back out to sit on a chair next to him.  I broke the ice with the usual conversation. 

“I’m from England,” he said without even looking at me, just staring out into the parking lot. 

I’m guessing he was about 60 years old and he was tall and slender with silver-white hair.  When I told him where I was from, he looked very surprised.

“Strange,” he replied.  “I don’t meet too many of you.  Seems like Americans don’t like to travel much.”

I agreed with him and told him that we’re few and far between.  While trying to talk with him, I say trying because he didn’t say much, mostly just minimal answers with no feedback, I found out that he had traveled around Asia for nearly 15 years.  He said he’d been in Jinghong for about a month.

“A month eh?” I said.  “So you must be doing a lot around here.  I’m only here for a day or two, can you suggest anything?”

“No,” he said and turned up the radio. 

I guessed that I was bothering him, so I got out my journal and started writing to show I was also busy and to curb the awkwardness.  But I couldn’t concentrate to write.  I felt strange.  When I was talking to him, he could never quite look me in the eye very long, just short glances, like a child telling a lie.  Maybe because he knew what his eyes looked like.  Cold.  A light hazel-gray that were as chilling as they were piercing.  I’m getting goosebumps just writing about it.  After each string of sentences, his lips would give a nervous half-smile. 

I couldn’t help but think what he had done here for the past month, let alone the past 15 years.  A 60-year-old man alone and socially awkward.  As a traveller, you meet the occasional drifter, someone you can’t quite put a finger on, as if they are hiding or running away from something.  He had that presence more than anyone I’d met before. 

I finished up my coffee and stood up.  I had some clothes I needed washed, so I got them and gave them to the woman at the desk.  Again, she looked annoyed and just threw my clothes in a bag.  I told her I might be checking out tomorrow, so could she please have them finished by then.  She just nodded her head and disappeared through a door behind the desk.

I went back in the room to get ready to roam around the town.  When I came out he asked, “Where are you going?”

“Just going to see what I can find around here,” I replied.  He gave a half-smile again and said, “See you later.”

With that, I headed out and wandered a market taking photos.  I then headed to the Mekong Cafe to get some breakfast and get on the internet to plan my crossing into Laos.  After finishing breakfast, I wandered aimlessly around the town and headed across a bridge to try to find a large buddhist temple I’d read about on the internet.  After walking for about an hour, I gave up looking for it and headed back into town.  The rest of the afternoon I just walked around, tiring my legs and absorbing the sights.  It started to rain so I headed back to the hostel to put my bag away and get some dinner.

I stopped by the front desk to ask about my laundry and the woman kept saying she didn’t understand what I was talking about.  In my broken Chinese, I kept asking where my laundry was.  She just kept saying, “Tien putong.  Tien putong.” (I don’t know.)  Finally, she angrily pointed up towards the ceiling and disappeared through the door again.  I walked upstairs and found a ladder going to the rooftop.  Sure enough, there were all my clothes, hanging on a line soaking wet in the rain.  Now I knew why she was saying that and acting strange.  She was trying to save face because she forgot about my laundry.  I took them down and went back to my room to try to wring them out in the bathroom sink. 

Thankfully, the man wasn’t there so I could avoid more eerie awkwardness.  After getting my clothes as dry as  I could, I hung them up around the room on a few chairs and turned the fan on them.  After that I headed out to get some dinner.  It was still raining so I took a book with me to read and sat on a covered patio while eating some spicy chicken and drinking a cold Harbin beer.  The wait staff didn’t seem to mind, so I sat there for about three hours reading and ordering more beers.  Finally, around ten o’ clock, I headed back to the hostel.

I opened the door quietly, thinking the man might be in bed, and came in.  The light was still on and he was sitting up in bed, his shirt off with the covers over him.  He turned and looked at me as I walked in.

“Where have you been?” he asked in a parental-like tone.

“Just walking around seeing what the city has to offer,” I replied as I set my bag down.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” he said with a wide smile.

“Oh, uh, you didn’t have to wait.” 

He sat there with his eyes on me the whole time.  I wanted to take a shower again because I had decided to catch the early morning bus to Laos.  But I didn’t know what to do with the light on, his cold eyes eyeing every movement.  I didn’t say anything else while I gathered all my half-dry clothes and put them into a plastic bag.  As I packed everything, he just sat there in bed, staring without a word, just a strange smile on his face.  I didn’t know what to do.

I went into the bathroom and locked the door.  As I took a shower, paranoid thoughts raced through my mind.  I started to think about the situation.  I hadn’t seen any other travellers at the hostel.  Only the annoyed woman, the old man and myself.  Why had he been here for a whole month and couldn’t tell me one thing to do?  15 years traveling Asia?  What was up with the woman’s attitude?  Then it hit me.  The cold eyes, the socially awkward mannerisms, the short answers.  I remembered I’d asked his name that morning and he steered the conversation away from it.  Who was he?

Serial killer.  The thought kept creeping into my head.  I couldn’t help it.  The cold eyes you see in the mug shots when watching shows about killers.  He had them.  

No, c’mon Lance.  Get real.

But what if he was?  What if I just forget about these paranoid thoughts, but if I’m wrong, I won’t wake up tomorrow.  I kept thinking about it as I stood in front of the bathroom mirror.  Why is there no one else staying here?  Maybe he’s got some kind of deal going on with the strange desk woman, where he possibly rapes and kills young travellers coming through here and she’s in on it, keeping a low-key. 

I must have stood there for about half an hour trying to get a clear head.  I thought maybe I should change rooms, but how was I going to explain that to the already disgruntled woman.  I kept telling myself that the guy’s just a weirdo, nothing else.  But no matter how much I told myself it’s all just situational paranoia, I kept fearing the unknown. 

Finally, I opened the door and came back into the room.  He was still sitting up in the bed with the light on. 

“Why were you in there so long?” he asked.  “Is something wrong?”

“No. Nothing’s wrong,” I left it at that. 

I could feel his eyes on me as I made sure everything was ready to go and set my alarm on my phone. 

“Can I turn off the light?”  I asked.

“Sure.”  He showed his yellow teeth smiling again.

I shut out the light and crawled into bed.  I could see the silhouette of his outline through the street light coming in through the far window.  He just kept sitting there, upright in bed.

I got up and went back into the bathroom.  My shaving kit was still in there and I grabbed my razor, an old-fashioned one that barbers use.  I took one last look in the mirror and thought, This is it man.  If he wants to try something, I’m fuckin’ ready.

I walked back out with it clasped in my fist and got back into bed.  His silhouette was still there, sitting up.

I lay there watching him with my eyes almost shut, my heart jumping against my chest.  My palm was sweaty against the razor.  Bring it old man.

I didn’t sleep.  I watched him the whole time.  For two hours he sat up in bed and I could see his head moving about, as if trying to see if I had fallen asleep yet.  I kept thinking, it’s either you or him…it’s either you or him.   

I was jolted awake by my alarm at 5:45.  I immediately looked over at him.  He was sound asleep.  Jesus. I smiled in relief.  What a weirdo.

I put the blade away and gathered all my stuff.  As I was walking out he turned over and let out a long yawn. 

“You heading out?”  

“Yep.”

“Have a safe trip,” he said.

“Thanks.  Same to you.”  I opened the door and walked out.

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Professional Procrastination for Southeast Asia

These are the words of the world’s worst procrastinator when it comes to writing.  How long has it been?  Almost 8 months?!  You could probably say that’s long enough to drop my account, but here I am, back and ready to do some much-needed back peddling on Living in the Red.

Where to begin?  First, I’ve got some handwritten journals from my summer trip to Southeast Asia that I’m digging to share.  So, without further ado and haste, here you go.

I started the 6 week journey in mid-July and had a very loose itinerary for wearing out my shoes from Yunnan province, South China, down to Laos and on to Cambodia, then back up through Vietnam and across again into China through the Guangxi province.  For only six weeks and that much ground to cover, I should’ve known it was going to be far too much to handle.  And it was my first time travelling alone for an extended period of time, although I was never without friends and fellow travellers.  Here’s my first journal entry.

 

Dali, Yunnan province, South China – July 17th, 2010

I arrived in Dali yesterday with my friend and fellow Aussie co-worker Bernie.  We flew from Shenzhen to Kunming instead of taking the originally planned 26 hour bus ride.  Needless to say, the two-hour flight was much more comfortable than 26 hours of smelly feet and disaster driving on the smoky sleeper buses (yes, you can smoke on some).

After getting to Kunming, we took a five-hour, 138 yuan ($20) bus ride northwest to Xiaguang.  All along the highway we passed small farming villages scattered throughout a long valley.  The houses were painted on the sides with various pictures of cartoon-like dinosaurs, mushrooms and potatoes.  The first leg of the trip were the dinosaurs, then, after about 70 km or so of the reptiles, the mushrooms came with their bright red and whites.  I started to ponder the meaning of these designs and I couldn’t help but think the inhabitants of these small houses were known to each other as the “Mushroom People” or “The Potato Gang”, something to that effect.  There were also houses with circular emblems painted with bright blues, reds, and yellows that reminded me of Central American art.  These villages belonged to the Bai, an ethnic minority who dress in traditional blue clothing that is as simple as it is sharp.  The women wore various styles of wrapped hats with embroidered flowers.  The men also wore blue hats that reminded me of the workers’ hats commonly associated with communism.  Between the highway and their small homes, you could see them tending their corn and rice fields which were dotted with water buffalo and scarecrows. 

After about six hours, we finally came up Dali.  The old town of Dali sits between a steep range of mountains and China’s second largest lake Erhai-hu, which is long and stretches out for 50 or so km.  The town itself is surrounded by a square wall with one traditional styled gate on each of the four sides.

Almost forgot, even though our bus said Dali as the destination, it actually only took us to Xiaguan, which is also known as New Dali.  Bernie and I got off the bus wondering how the hell to get to Old Dali because in his edition of the backpacker’s glorified brochure, Lonely Planet, it didn’t show exactly how to get there.  I asked the clerk at the bus station and she said to take the local bus #2 and pointed us in the direction of the stop.  We found the bus stop, but the sign didn’t list a #2 bus.  Bernie and I, in our broken Chinese, tried to ask some locals where the bus was and they told us to stay there at the same stop.  Finally, after some wild body-language attempts and laughter, a woman in her thirties came up to us and asked if we needed help in clear english.  Turns out she was also an english teacher from one of the local schools.  She said we had to transfer from bus #4 to bus #2 at a different stop and even got on the bus with us to show us.  The more I travel around Asia, the more I’ve learned that if you’re lost or aren’t sure where to go, the best thing to do is just look as completely stupid and lost as you can and eventually help will show up (may not be wise in certain areas of Cambodia).  The Chinese are very hospitable to foreigners, which makes it easier in spite of the language barrier.

Back to Dali.  We checked into a hostel called “The Hump,” which is one of the nicest I’ve stayed in and for only 30 yuan a night for a dorm ($4).  I met my other co-worker and fellow American Blake there too. 

 

Jinghong, South Yunnan, China – July 22nd, 2010

Ended up staying five nights at The Hump because it was such a chill place.  The main bar area even had a band stage with a drum kit.  The first night I stayed there, there was a musician playing named Nevada (John) who was originally from Minnesota.  He played a few country and blues numbers and I asked the manager if it was cool to play a few songs.  “Of course,” he said.  “It would even be encouraged.”

So, after a couple more songs, Nevada invited me up on stage to play.  I ended up peforming another night there and filled out a six-song set including a couple of my originals and Bowie’s “Man Who Sold The World” and Dylan’s “Stuck in The Middle With You”.  The only kind of dissapointing thing was I later found a sign posted at the hostel that read you could play and stay for free, yet I didn’t even get a free drink while I was there, let alone get a night knocked off the bill.  Oh well, can’t complain at $4/night and it was a pleasure just playing for a completely random audience of people from all over the world.

On the third day in Dali, I rented a mountain bike and rode half-way up Lake Erhai, then slowly meandered my way back through a long row of old villages that hugged the water’s edge.  The villagers were mostly traditionally dressed in their light and dark blue simple styles, with the women wearing flower embroidered sashes around their hips and a tartan/flannel styled matching blue and white head-dress.  The narrow winding streets were mostly car-less, with children playing and shouting, including some young boys carrying a plastic M-16 and unloading a few, fake lip-blattering rounds into me as I rode by.  I laughed and clutched my ribs; they got quite a kick out of that.

Although the village along the lake appears to be one big town, I found out it was actually a string of small villages lined up along the water.  Every 10 or 20 minutes of riding south along streets, I came across a village center: a crowded intersection full of farmers and the elderly selling and bartering green onions, cabbage, corn and a lush and colorful variety of other produce. 

As I was riding east towards the lake, I found a dead-end where the road led to a trail ending in the water.  I stopped to take a few pictures (I lost all my Yunnan photos on my separate flash card somewhere in Laos) and I noticed this short, hunched-over old woman with a cane lurching towards me.  I couldn’t help but stare in amazement because she looked to be at least 90 or so years old.  She kept coming with her head down the whole way and as soon as she was close to the corner, she reached down and tried to move a brick cinder-block with her free hand.  I was frozen in the moment and thought to myself, Should I help her? But for some reason, I couldn’t get myself to go over to her.  I thought maybe I would scare her, of course because she probably doesn’t see too many white faces, and I was mesmorized as she ever so slowly, inch by inch, moved this cinder-block around the corner of the building to a different spot.  Then she carefully turned around and slid her feet back down the walk-way to her door.  It’s still a lucid memory in my mind, the image of someone who would normally be in a nursing home somewhere hooked up to a few tubes, staring mindlessly at afternoon talk-shows, yet she was out here scooting around with her cane and doing some “heavy” labor.  Actually, it’s something I’ve noticed about China: the elderly really get out and do activities or they hang out with other older people in the parks, playing card games or 麻將(Mahjiang).  Their children  take care of them and live with them, so a nursing home is nearly impossible to find.  – End Entry

 

DALI STREET RAIN – July 20th, 2010

The following is a kind of poem I wrote while waiting out the rain after I rode back from the lake villages.  I sat under a store awning on some steps and for about 5 minutes, wrote down everything I could see and hear, trying to connect the moment into a narrative.  I also recorded a reading of this along with field noise/music here at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QxywKEkvca4

It is as follows:

Square stones wet drops reflections trees in the grey wheels of umbrellas held by wooden bridges blue apron motorbikes walking in high heels tight black jeans we shared a stare down the road keep your yawn under chinese Erhu melodies rain coats riding hands in pockets walking the poodle like a smoking bus passing the gate of history through the eyes of a fart chewing gum and the desire to piss on a fire hydrant beauty scratching its head as the sound of pistons cuts the afternoon chatter and wears a cowboy hat with eyes wearing seatbelts cut the onions and wonder where the cross walk begins to ponder why I’m sitting here on the stained concrete yellow pen still looking for a load image of a tree yawning for the sake of standing still as matter rushes between straddled sandals she’s marked the mole and passed the sun pointing to the grey north of Coca-Cola corn on the cob hips in the street of little red walking hood 1.4 i see the grey and chins count the baskets of white books killing black bugs I got stripes and bowling shoes because my glasses don’t need eyes to see the smile of beautiful wives carrying fruit over their brown shoulders while their babies look left to the tourist future of fake history covering the tragedy of cultural curiosity.

 

 

 

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Roughing It

It’s been awhile since I added a new post.  I told myself I would be good at keeping this blog updated and I’m already slagging off.  One reason was because I think I had some wild Chinese virus that completely crashed and shut down my notebook (couldn’t even turn it on).  So I went with a couple of my students to the computer repair man in the technology district of Huizhou.  It took a couple hours but, while chain-smoking inside the store, he got it back up and running for  a cost of only 50 yuan (7$ USDs).

Anyhow, two Fridays ago they canceled university classes because they had some kind of track meet.  So, I decided to take my first hike in China.  There are not really any mountains within the city limits; I would  call them more like rugged hills with thick vegetation.  I wanted to find Gaobang Mountain and all I had to find my way was a crappy map in Chinese, but there was the international sign for mountain in one corner:  a bold triangle with a 130 m next to it.  Yeah, 130 meters, hardly a hike, but nothing would prepare me for what I encountered at the top. 

On the way to Gaobang, there is a quaint, old-style village that is tucked into the foothills and surrounded by small yet fertile farming patches.  Even though I was still in the city, I felt like I’d stepped into what I’d like to think Huizhou used to resemble before all the modern buildings, apartment blocks, and crazy traffic.

 

As I walked through the fields, I could see the trails zig-zagging across the mountain, but I wasn’t exactly sure how to get to the entrance.  I stood there, tourist map in hand, the only foreigner in sight for miles, and two elderly women came up to me and asked me in Chinese where I was going.  I pointed to the mountain.  “Gaobangshan?” I asked.  They nodded their heads and told me to follow them.  I thanked them and started to walk by their side towards the village and the mountain.  They asked me some questions and of course I had no idea what they were saying so all I said in my best Mandarin was, “I’m from America.  I’m an English teacher.”  They smiled and seemed to understand and beckoned me to keep following them but I still wanted to keep stopping to take pictures.  So, they went ahead but I kept a steady pace behind them and every couple minutes they would turn around and shout something and motion to keep following.  I had to laugh.  Here I was, sort of stalking these two old women, taking pictures of random things they wouldn’t think were interesting, and they kept yelling at me as I trailed behind them.  The other people in the village must’ve been thinking, What the?

 

I had to stop at this little house and take a shot of the flag in the window.  I like how it’s not only hanging from the clothes-line, but for some odd reason it’s also tied off at the window.  Almost all residence windows in Huizhou, no matter how high off the ground, have these steel protective bars over them.  I asked my students why and they said it was to keep out theives.  Funny.  For a place where crime is virtually non-existent, especially compared to the States, they sure keep a cautious attitude.

 

After finally getting through the village’s stray dogs and children, I reached the opening of the trail and my two kind tour guides sent me on my way with some final shouts and outstretched fingers leading the way.  I thanked them and started my “trek” up the trail.

Hiking here is similar to Korea.  Only here people don’t dress like they’re climbing Mt. Everest and the trails, like Korea, aren’t really trails at all, merely concrete or brick paths winding there way up and down.  There’s also bits of trash and cigarette butts scattered along the edges of the path, but surprisingly not as much as I expected.  I passed other hikers, mostly older couples or groups of men, and most of them looked surprised or even a bit bewildered to see me.  A few of them even laughed or gave their best “Hallo!”  It took only about 25 minutes to get to Xiangyun Tower (some kind of large antennae) at the top, but since it was humid I broke a hefty sweat.

This is over looking some of Huizhou City.  You can see West Lake in the distance just before the small skyline of buildings.  It looks a bit hazy, but it was actually a pretty clear day, so you can imagine what it looks like when it’s really overcast.  I wouldn’t say the air is bad in Huizhou, but you definately can’t deny it’s a tad dirty. 

After I cooled off and enjoyed the view,  I started to walk over to a large new temple under construction which sits a top the mountain.  There was a large backhoe dropping chunks of earth and rocks into a dumptruck blocking the middle of the road, so I patiently waited before walking around.  When it was clear, the worker waived me on and I made my way around the truck and kept heading down the dirt road towards the other side of the temple.  Well, the truck started barrelling down the road towards me so I stepped to the side and let it pass, only to have it stop and start backing up right before me; again blocking the road as it dumped all the gravel and dirt.  I didn’t want to wait again, so this time I decided to find a way around the truck.  There was a small ditch to the right of it and it looked like there was a little bit of light colored mud puddled at the bottom.  I figured a little mud wouldn’t hurt, after all, I was hiking and I did take the stairs coming up, so I thought a little mud on the shoes would give the hike a  more rugged feel.  I stepped down.  Whoosh!  My leg shot down into the “matter”, and next thing I knew I was up past my knee into the stuff.  I yelled and quickly pulled myself out of it and climbed up the other side.  I looked down and half my leg was covered in this greenish-brown muck.  “Ahhhh fuck!”  I couldn’t help but shout as I noticed bits of rice and other chunks of what I could only call crap completely covering my leg.  The smell was overwhelming and I turned my head over and puked. 

I immediately thought the worst.  I stepped in a huge vat of shit.  I turned around and the driver was trying to hold in his laughter.  I pointed at my leg, trying to plead for some kind of help.  He pointed over to a building about ten meters away.  I limped over, trying not breath and look down.  I reached a doorway and there was an old woman sitting on a chair.  “Ni hao!”  I said and pointed down at the mess.  She slowly got up and came over to assess my disaster.  She gave me a grimace and said something pointing back to where the pit was.  I nodded my head, confirming what I’d just done.  She plugged her nose and walked over to me, then led me back towards the truck.  I followed her into a dark room where there was a rusty faucet and she told me I could wash it off there, then left me there to clean it up myself.  The Chinese are nice but, of course in my case, not completely hospitable.  I gagged as I untied my Vans and washed away the gunk.  As I watched it drain away, I noticed where it was going:  down a little crevice that led out the corner of the room and back down…yep, into the vat.  I sighed in relief.  It wasn’t the workers digested meals as I originally feared, merely a drainoff where they probably washed their dishes and dumped their uneaten food.  After I cleaned off the bottom of my shorts, my leg and my shoes as best as I could, I put my wet socks and Vans back on and headed out.  I walked by the doorway again, pointed to my leg, and said thank you to the old woman.  She laughed and waved me on.

Even though I got most of the muck off, the smell was still lingering.  Great, as if I wasn’t already attracting enough attention just being a foreigner.  Oh well.  I was only halfway through my hike and I wasn’t going to let some muddy, food-infested vat ruin my fun.  I trekked on.  The thought did cross my mind to take a picture before I cleaned all the muck off, but between holding my nose and gagging, I just couldn’t muster up the motivation.  So here’s a post-cleanup shot.

I squeked and squished my way around to the front of the temple, passing other hikers who for once weren’t gawking at my face for they had something more interesting to feast their eyes on.  I’m sure they were wondering, which trail did he come up?  I came around to the front of the temple and there were droves of families, couples, and some construction workers enjoying a smoke break.  While I was standing at a ledge and overlooking the city, two couples behind me kept trying to take a picture with me in the background.  You know, trying to not make it look like they were taking my picture by staying a few steps away, but it was pretty obvious.  Finally, they came over and asked if I would take a picture with them.  Of course I happily obliged.  Then, I tried to tell them to use my camera too to get the same picture with them, but instead, they stepped away and took one of me by myself. 

Let me give you some background before you see this next shot.  Like Korea and most of Asia, overweight people are few and far between.  It seems for some reason that their diet of mostly vegetables, some meat, and plenty of rice just doesn’t add on the pounds like a Double-Quarter Pounder Value Meal does.  I can honestly say that since I’ve been here for the past two months, I can probably count the hefty people I’ve seen on one hand.  Nevertheless, there are exceptions, and I was almost happy to see a chubby tweenage or so boy hucking down a bag of chips and a liter of soda on a bench at the scenic view area.  I’m not sure where his parents were and it seemed that no one was really looking after him.  Just him, his bag of goodies, the liter, and a grinning crumb-smeared face.  So, I did what the Chinese sometimes do when they see someone who is out of place.  I snapped a picture.

He clapped and jumped up and down when I showed it to him.  After I felt a little guilty, I headed back down a different trail where I was trying to find another temple/palace-like place I’d seen down at the bottom.  While I was walking down there was this little black poodle belonging to an older woman that kept nipping at my heels and barking at me.  Of course it wasn’t barking at anyone else who passed by.  I wondered if it was barking at me because I looked strange or if it was because it got a whiff of my organic leg.  Probably a combination of both.  The old woman could do nothing but laugh hysterically and try to calm it down, but it was no use.  It really wanted to make sure everyone else was aware of the passing intruder.

 

 

After winding through the village again, I found my way to the temple grounds.  It seems that this one was recently constructed too because it didn’t have the splintered wood charm most the older ones have.  It was entirely built out of newly masoned granite and fresh wood but still looked pleasing to my eyes. 

This is outside the main building and like most important buildings and temples in China, it is decorated by a pair of curly-haired Chinese lions.  This one is the female and she is holding her baby down underneath her paw.  Why you might ask?  Well, according to my trusty guidebook, the Chinese believed that lions could secrete milk through their paws.  The male on the other side is usually seen playing with a ball.  Now you know.

 

 

 

While I was wandering around the grounds, a woman with rhinestone-gemmed glasses came up to me and asked me in near perfect English, “Where are you from?”  I told her and she asked a few other of the usual questions about why I’m in China, my impressions, can I use chopsticks, etc.  She told me she was the manager of the place.  Then she asked, “Would you like some tea?” and pointed inside the building above.  At first I said no thank you, thinking it was some tourist trap to get some extra dough out of me.   “It’s OK.  It’s free,” she smiled.  “You can have a try.”  I reluctantly said OK because I still smelled of rotton vegetables and who knows what else, I just hoped she wouldn’t notice.  She led me into the doorway and sat me down at a beautiful table set made completely of what looked like a section of a large tree trunk.  She then introduced me to the tea girl who would be serving me. 

 

I sat there patiently, watching her make the tea and trying to speak to her in my little known Mandarin because, unlike the manager, she spoke almost no English.  As I sat there, I began to wonder if she could smell the after-effect of my incident.  I couldn’t tell because by then, I had grown used to the stench.  It was a pretty awkward moment and I couldn’t wait until she finished making the tea so I could slug it down and get the hell out of there.  She had to of had a whiff.  After a couple minutes she poured me a small cup and I sipped it carefully.  It was awesome.  Just watching the whole experience of her making traditional tea and then savoring it definately made me feel a tad Chinese.  Just then, a group of three older men entered the tea-room.  The girl welcomed them in and told them to sit down.  They took one look at me, paused a moment, turned a slight look of disgust on their face, and then walked out.  Haha!  I’m guessing the reason(s) why, but I didn’t care because I had the whole place to myself.  Just me and my own tea girl and a room full of cultural awkwardness.  Ahh, I soon forgot about the whole incident on the mountain and let my mind wander through the landscape paintings on the walls and the little trinkets on the shelves as I slowly slurped my tea.

I thanked her as I finished up and started to leave.  The rhinestone-rimmed glasses greeted me as I was walking out.  “Did you enjoy?”  she asked.  “Yes.  It was very good,” I replied.  “You can come here anytime you want.  Next time you can bring your friends,” she said as the tea girl came up and stood beside me.  They then had a little conversation and both started giggling.  “I must be going now,” I said.  “OK,” she said, “but before you go, do you think we could take our pictures with you?”  I should’ve guessed.  “Of course!”  I happily obliged.

Can you sense the moment?  She’s leaning in, I’m leaning away.  Which leads me to conclude:  only in China will someone still want to take a picture with you even though you smell like complete shit.  I love it here.

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Strolling Huizhou

It’s exactly two weeks now that I’ve been living in China.  Fourteen days of curiousity, insight, new tastes and smells, trying to remember the names of over 200 students, and walking for at least ten aimless hours around the city.  I dig Huizhou a lot.  The hardest part of living here is not knowing the language, but I’m starting to pick it up at a moderate pace.  Mandarin is not as hard as I thought it would be.  It has very basic grammar, but the pronuciation and rising and falling tones are what can make it difficult.  My mouth and tongue attempting to form new and unusual combinations can sometimes make me sound like a bad Kung Fu flick.  

I’m sore right now from all the walking around I’ve done this past week and I also played some four-on-four basketball with my students for a couple hours.  I haven’t played in a few years and it was funny because I was the only one calling timeouts so I could catch my breath and chug some water.  I was a sweaty mess, but it was fun and a lot of the students would stop and watch a ‘live-real-life-white-man’ in his own sporting element.  I’m sure my ability didn’t quite rise to their expectations.  Some of the students’ love  for basketball here is pretty intense, seeing as the fifteen or so courts here on campus are always alive with the sounds of shuffling sneakers and the constant hollow-air bounce.  

I promised more pictures of the city and I hope my strolling around was able to deliver.  I ran into two of my male students one day at a McDonalds (I was starving with no pictures on menus in sight) and they were able to show me around the city’s famous ‘West Lake’.  There’s an assortment of other pictures here too.  When you don’t have an intinerary, you just have to let your legs and eyes dictate your lefts and rights through the streets.  I’ll let my camera frame do the rest of the talking (with captions).  

Huizhou University Gate/Bus Stop

Huizhou University -- The Sunrise building where I hold my classes

Downtown Plaza where children drive mini battery-powered cars (I was "run over" by one smiling boy)

Riverside Plaza

Looking back from the river bank

Watching the River

No city is complete without a Viking

A True Fisherman

Closed Beer Stand

PBR drinkers of the world unite!

I always thought tennis was funny with all the grunts, weird scores, and...old people?

Southern area of West Lake

Skyline Mirror

Cigarettes and Fish

In need of a frog

Singing and playing the Erhu (Chinese Violin)

Ahoy!

Art and Architecture

Sunset Peacock

One of the main intersections

So there's these three fisherman...

Finishing dinner

Looking across from a bridge over West Lake

An old Temple (Ta)

Bamboo and Lanterns

Lakeside Living

Main West Lake

No...you cannot milk this tree

Standing in front of Sizhou Pagoda (500 yr. old monument to the famous sage Seng Jla)

Pagoda Detail (notice the love graffiti)

Pagoda overview

Pagoda Window

Opposite View

To the blue

Leggy Tree

Light for Sale

Love Boat Corral

Ancient Tree

Calligraphy Museum Entrance

Tim Burton would be proud

Tang Choo Yu (Sweet & Sour Fish) -- most tasty Chinese meal I've eaten so far and only about $3 USDs

Doorway decorations for good fortune

Antiquity Street

 

 

Westlake Bird Peddlers

One of the many developed areas

Night Moves

 

Eat your heart out Huck Finn

I believe I stumbled upon the ever changing houseboat neighborhood

Lollin' on de liber

Suspension Shot

Old Gate

Cruising through

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