Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Putting the Banana in Xishuang Banna, or, Me and You and Everyone We Think We Know

"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." — Carl Sagan

Imagine you've been sick for a week—your nose is running, you have a defiant nagging cough, your sinuses are all out of whack—and as you disembark the plane you're hit by a rush of warm rain that greases the Richard-Nixon-staircase at the plane's exit and almost makes a Charlie Chaplin scene out of the whole thing. The next morning you hike for three hours in drizzle, you wear sopping American clothes, you wipe your nose on the edge of your sleeve wrapped around your cold shaking hand like a three-year-old. Imagine this is you, and you will have the first leg of my trip to Xishuang Banna.
I make it sound more miserable than it was. It wasn't miserable at all, but what has been written cannot be unwritten, lest I start writing like an actual person and do a little something called revising. No, instead what happened was I went on this miserably wet hike, and despite my illness, I had a great time, and at some point, like the phoenix before me, I rose from sopping wet ashes and returned to form, a Bo Zhongzhi for all seasons. Our reward for finishing this thousand-year-old-tree-spotted walk was tea with the villagers, who cooked it in bamboo shafts and served it accordingly. We then ate lunch with them, possibly the most delicious Chinese meal I have ever had. They sang local songs, hand-clapping, grinning, and when it came our turn to show them a tune, someone piped up with the "Star-Spangled Banner," and so we extended our soft power instead of reaching out with a nice cultural hello (which came later, in the form of popular music). That a juxtaposition between traditional Yunnan drinking songs and American pop music caused such concern. That in the end both songs were really only about alcohol.

We rode a boat. Down the Mekong River. A dingy, really. We played volleyball on the beach, and we rode bikes to another village, a pack of foreigners pedaling through banana plantation fields to get to a village about which they knew nothing. We met Buddhist monks. We removed our shoes and met Buddhist monks. Outdoor temples where the wind blew through unabated. We ate. A beautiful girl in hiking shorts smiled at me and said my name. Each moment passed with such dreamlike diffidence that the shy reality of all was impossible to get at in the moments themselves, and pictures, snapped though they were, are only lazy representations of what once existed in my mind.

In the village we biked to a group of lackadaisical boys were ready and set to play us (the Alliance) in a game of basketball. We got shirtless and stretched; they kept their clothes on and smoked. Really, their gametime preparation was to smoke a pack of Kools [ed: brand actually unknown]. Our director, Bing, warned us that these villagers had never been beat, had never lost to the Alliance, that the altitude provided them with a stamina advantage and that their whole plan was to plainly outlast us. We put on Nikes and they played barefoot.
At halftime we were up by 11, probably, about, more or less, 差不多, and Bing came to us beaming, "You guys are making history." 
The second half was a slow descent into mediocrity for the Alliance program, and as our two main shooters trailed off with miss after miss and our strange pattern of substitutions threw off our team chemistry, the villagers swept back in and took the lead. The fourth quarter came around and I sat in a chair and watched for the rest of the game, content to let others play, unaware that we were actually losing. A beautiful girl in hiking shorts sat with me and I didn't care about the game. I reached out a daring finger and touched the hair on her head, and I dared with my other hand to touch her waist, and she smiled and tousled my messy hair, and me, covered in the most disgusting sweat I can imagine to date, and her, not seeming to give a damn, there in that chair by the concrete court in a village in Xishuang Banna (note: I am still unsure of Xishuang Banna's state of existence. It is within a province, but it is referred to as some sort of region. It has a capital [though I'm unsure of it's officialdom] called Jinghong, and is peppered with villages, and it's not a city. I just don't know what it really is).
Anyway, we lost the game when, down by one point, a friend of ours who loves basketball, who adores basketball, who played basketball in high school and talked about basketball the whole day leading up to this game—we lost when he caught a long-ball near the hoop, running, and missed a lay-up at the buzzer. Lost by one. I don't think any of us really minded.

And this is what stands out from Xishuang Banna (or, as Boston Mike called it, Xishuang Banana). We did other stuff, too, but this is what stands out, more so than the bars or the club or the cheap DVD store or the hotel or the market or any of all that jazz. And what stands out even more than the things we did is who we did it with: friends, cute girls, a guy from Boston who swears by protein, a beautiful girl in hiking shorts who smiles like a lens flare, a roommate and a director and a guide who all do what they do well. Villagers who eat with us after a hike; villagers who play ball with us in bare feet and cigarettes in their mouths; boat drivers who don't speak English but smile all the while at our half-hearted songs. These people stand out, and if pictures could capture them, they'd be captured, but it's better that they can move on, free, ethereal to those of us who only visited and as real and concrete as the Mekong River to those who love them everyday. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fever Dreams in Kunming (then Dali, then Lijiang...)

"And Here My Troubles Began" — Maus, Title, Book II

About five days ago I returned from a nine-day trip to Yunnan Province in Southern China. Tasked with writing a blog post about the experience, I have no idea where to begin. The surreality of it all—or maybe surreal is the wrong descriptor? is unreal more accurate?—the otherworldliness is still too present in my mind for me to accurately describe just how it all went down. I'm waiting for the actuality to sink in, to hit me, but I don't know if it ever will.

It all began with a fever. The night before we left I topped 100 degrees fahrenheit, and I think I managed to break it on the plane. Three hours from Beijing to Kunming, and during the last leg, when the air pockets stagger over the mountains, we hit turbulence that just wouldn't quit. In a fever pitch, our group laughed and ooh'ed and I felt ill, and I developed a major sweat, and for the first time ever on an airplane I reached for the barf bag and said to my next-door neighbor, "Watch out, I might end up using this." But we came in for a landing and the turbulence was over and my pre-puke rumblings ceased, and I was left in a cold sweat feeling like, I don't know, a survivor, I guess.
I spent the night in Kunming at a hotel, and for the sake of readers who plan to study abroad, I will summarize the evening's events (that I missed, thankfully) in three short phrases: one minor knee injury, one missing student, one arrest. I was awoken in the middle of the night by Mao Shan, who burst into the room voicing concern over the troubles of our classmates. The next morning, Bing, our director and savior, instituted a curfew. Well deserved, I might add.

The next two cities passed in a blur. Dali and its beautiful lake, Erhai, were both stunning. We took a boat to an island or peninsula or something upon which sat an old temple and a pagoda, and there we drank tea and took pictures, and all was well. We took a bus to Lijiang the next day, and again the city was beautiful. We hiked Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, and my illness lashed out, twofold revenge on a body that tried to do too much. The temperature dropped (in the air) and I went to bed early each night, despite the lifting of Bing's curfew. Rest was simply more important. I ate at Pizza Hut with a friend, and the atmosphere was one of quiet romance, not the family bustle of the same chain in America. Zhang Yimou's impression show dazzled by sheer amount of spectacle alone, and Xuan Ke, a man imprisoned for only six years less than Mandela, discussed the show's fakeness. A representative of the Naxi minority, Xuan Ke was assuming and unassuming both, a timid way of carrying himself that masked a different personality—a justifiably upset man who only ever really wanted to play music that spoke to him.

Before a flight to Xishuang Banna, my cold lifted, but the surreality or unreality continued. However, that is another post. Two distinct travels took place: the trip of the downtrodden, bedridden, ill Joshua, and the warm-weather adventure of a spritely Bo Zhongzhi. More to come.

view from atop the temple in Dali

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On Learning Chinese

"不到长城非好" — Chinese idiom (tr: until you reach the Great Wall, you are not truly a man)

To learn Chinese is a lifelong commitment. It is a language that, for the average English speaker, obliterates all else in its path. In high school, I started to learn Spanish; I maintained a rudimentary understanding of it throughout college—that is, until I began Mandarin classes. Any attempt to speak Español now comes out as a strange pidgin tongue mixing tones and rolled R's, an indecipherable gobbledygook. It's not that I can't remember Spanish, that's not the problem. I begin to form a thought, and as my tongue wraps itself around the first "Yo" or "Tu" of the sentence, my mind starts changing itself and commands of me a "Wo" or a "Ni." Even as I wrote that last sentence, I wanted to type "tu" but my fingers said "ni," and I had to go back and change things around. 

Here, in the student dorm at Beiyu, we speak another pidgin language called Chinglish. I ask for a plate of jiaozi or say "throw me a ping of pijiu," and we understand each other, but to the people outside or the friends back home, it is meaningless. Conversation is peppered with new vocabulary words, but the grammar remains firmly English, and any attempt to reconcile the yufa and the shengci of the two languages leaves me spellbound—what exactly am I trying to do here?

Out at the foot of the Great Wall in a small village in Hebei province, I met a boy who spoke beautiful Mandarin, and it shouldn't surprise me at all. He is seven years old, he was raised in Hebei, he's of (I could only guess) Han descent, and his father and mother work at the Wall itself as tour guides, sherpas-of-sorts, or what-have-you. For a brief moment I forgot that Chinese was as innate to this boy as English was to me, and I was blown away. For one millisecond I was jealous, even, until I realized what exactly I was thinking, until my mind snapped out of a daze and reminded me that yes, Mandarin is spoken by billions—children, adults, natives and non-natives alike. I playfully fought this boy with a wooden stick and a plastic sword, and I could only say "ni zhen lihai, xiao pengyou," but it was basic communication, and it really didn't matter what language we were speaking because he was happy, laughing. 

A certain foreign policy professor told his students that they had pretty much missed the boat for the Chinese language. The trail has been blazed, the jobs are snatched up, et cetera blah blah, but I'm not in this for a job (and even if I was, China is gigantic). I can't pinpoint what it is that I'm really doing, but I know I am enjoying it, I'm meeting wonderful people, and I'm hoping that my language skills continue to increase, not to increase my marketability, but so that I can more effectively communicate—with whoever. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Consider the Jiaozi

"There are limits to what even interested persons can ask of each other." — David Foster Wallace

Jiaozi, pot stickers, gyoza, momocha, jiao'er, or, more simply, Chinese dumplings have existed, been cooked and eaten, for, at the most liberal side of the estimations, at least four thousand years. The guotie, or pan-fried jiaozi (the most delicious and least good-for-you variation on the Chinese dumpling) has been around for a less-hefty one thousand years (all according to Wikipedia) and is reportedly good for the human soul, though, metaphysically speaking, the sustenance of the soul is a mystery only penetrated insofar as knowing that metaphorical versions of chicken soup possess the ability to lift a soul in a low moment, though (and this is philosophical backtracking) the notion that there can even be said to be "metaphorical versions of chicken soup" let alone a soul that consumes them — that notion requires a house-of-cards stack of premises that is, alas, a bit fragile. These guotie (called Peking ravioli in Bah-ston), regardless of their supposed ability to sustain the human soul, do possess the uncanny quality of filling the human stomach with meat, vegetables, and a starchy outer layer in one convenient package without resorting to the sandwich-stack Western style of doing things. And, ah, the kicker: you can find them (really) anywhere in Beijing, and they're dirt cheap.

In 2006, the average yearly salary for an urban worker in Beijing was 1,759 yuan (US$1,517). Compare this to the average weekly wage of a Manhattanite: $2,404. In China in 1959-61 somewhere between 14 and 40 million people died of famine. The national population in 1949 was about 400 million; today it is roughly 1.6 billion. Violent crime has increased steadily since the 1980s. The burgeoning gap between rich and poor defies the notion of a classless society.

In Beijing, steaming, squat, ill-painted little food vendor stands pepper the busier neighborhoods (really they're all "busier" neighborhoods), operating year-round to supply the cheapest, best taste-to-price ratio dishes of any restaurant, bistro, snack bar, or rathskeller in Northeastern China, and these often-family-run mini-businesses sweep in the tourists, the students, the bustling work crowds to their facades — their sliding windows — to offer up what you might call fast food or takeaway but would more accurately be referred to as street food. One of these stands with an indecipherable name (one might say inscrutable, an inscrutable name) pops up from the concrete in front of a place called the U-Center in Wudaokou, and most people refer to the little noodle shop as, simply, The Jiaozi Stand, though, to be fair, dozens of other jiaozi stands exist within a half-mile radius of this one. Despite its rather plain sobriquet, the stand, with its quiet fry chef and ever-smiling, matronly shifu, has some of the best food in the neighborhood, and its specialty (you guessed it: jiaozi) can be had for the steal-of-a-price of only six kuai (for a plate of ten). Upstreet there's a McDonald's. Downstreet there's another McDonald's. KFC is a block away. A Big Mac combo is 22 kuai. A chicken sandwich with fries is 14 kuai. A plate of jiaozi is 6 six kuai. Six renminbi.

Han Dynasty, 200 AD, generations away, in the dead times, cold times, evolutionarily infinitesimally close, no one knows anyone anymore, cold mountaintops open freezing plains plateaus iced over, before us — here Zhang Zhongjing, a medical practitioner, author of Treatise on Cold Pathogenic and Miscellaneous Diseases — here he took two jiaozi and said to the cold and ultimately dead, Here, warm your ears.

Making jiaozi involves a lot of crimping, a lot of folding over and pinching and massaging. To make jiaozi you have to trap the filling and close it in, then you can boil it or steam it or deep-fry it or, if you're a Beiyu student with a hankering for the cheap, pan-fry it. Jiaozi is often dipped in vinegar or various other sauces, but it can be eaten plain, too, or with some noodles or rice, or it can be eaten as part of a full meal as a main or supporting dish. To eat jiaozi you have to get a firm grip with your chopsticks, but if you squeeze too tightly the jiaozi will be sent flying and ah, what a pain. To make jiaozi, to eat jiaozi, you need to have a steady hand, you have to be just a bit careful, but you can still take risks so long as you keep that hand steady. You can even get fancy. Just remember that the jiaozi is old, older than you, and when you're eating something that has a history spanning empires —literally spanning empires — well, something's going on, and maybe someone sat where you sit and warmed their ears, and maybe not, maybe they just kept on moving, because they didn't have time to do anything but stay alive.