Tuesday, August 30, 2011

And so it begins....

We spent the entire summer in an earthquake zone where one of our biggest fears was the fatal mix of seismic action and Chinese construction. And there we were in Charlottesville on the last day before school started when an earthquake came. It’s clear that at least this east coast girl had no clue what to do and had this happened in our Chinese house we would have all bitten the dust because we would have been in the closet while it came tumbling down on us. I somehow confused earthquake and tornado protocol and hustled the five kids in the house into the front closet which was away from the windows. After a few seconds I thought to get the hell out of the house. If it hadn’t been the longest thirty seconds of my life the sight of five kids waiting for me as I bolted down the stairs with their little ears covered and then the six of us huddled in the closet might have been kind of cute. Eli’s friend Sam was freaked out and wanted to go back in the house, Eli was clueless, Jonathan thought it sounded like horses storming in the Peloponnesian war, and Rebecca and her friend Olivia managed in thirty seconds to turn into an operatic “WE ALMOST DIED IN AN EARTHQUAKE”

Meanwhile we’re all settling back into normal—or at least our form of normal. We have a few nice little staph infection boils as souvenirs, and I don’t think any of us has gone near a grain of rice. It’s clear that we’re not yet batting with a full team. One of us who shall remain nameless failed to check the time of their first class and missed it, one of us had the day wrong on a seminar, and one of us scheduled office hours during class. Needless to say that the wilting afternoons in the jungle with nothing to do but sweat often drove me completely crazy, but something between that and five people and one driver going in eight different directions might have been a nice transition.

The kids, for the most part, seem to have completely forgotten the experience. Last week I said “Isn’t it kind of weird that ten days ago we were in the jungle.” And the response was a resounding, “Can I have another waffle please?” I, on the other hand, found it remarkable to be standing in front of sixty first-year students talking about the tune Hound dog and Beethoven ten days after riding a Vespa into town to eat dumplings.

They still have a few habits; shoes left outside houses, obsessive washing of hands, constant checking if water is ok to drink. They seemed a little feral when we first got back, and one of them did their best impersonation of a psychotic child at the school open house, complete with no eye contact with anyone and grunting at teachers, etc… But all three of them marched off to the first day of school and haven’t looked back. As always, we get almost no information from them, though I learned from eavesdropping after bedtime that this year the Spanish teacher “actually speaks Spanish to us.” This seems like an improvement. Rebecca seems still to have a crush on the music teacher, and Jonathan would rather learn Latin than Spanish. Eli seems to be having a blast in the same preschool class he was in last year, though his joy was temporarily tampered when his big sibs said “really Eli are you going to learn anything at that school this year?”

I told the kids that I wasn’t cooking for two months when we got back. I lasted two weeks but have still not baked anything. Rebecca explained to me that she was pretty sure that what I baked would be more nutritious than the packaged snacks they were eating. I said a whole wheat Ritz cracker was plenty healthy enough.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Reverse Culture Shock

Thank goodness for Google. When I came home from rural Kenya in 1988 I had no idea that the panic attack caused by the cereal isle in Safeway came from a phenomenon called “reverse culture shock.” I think it’s safe to say that’s what we have going on in the Gordon/Lerdau family. We did mitigate it a bit by staying at my parents house for two days on the way back, which worked a little like one of those bubbles that astronauts hang out it when returning to Earth. Even with that, there is something bizarrely decentering about having the familiar feel unfamiliar. Seven minutes of internet research revealed that reverse culture shock often expresses itself in a radical reevaluating of priorities and a re-setting of life goals. My symptoms are more material than spiritual.

Electric lighting feels blinding, and I can’t finish any of the meals I crave. No one looks at me when I walk down the street, and no one touches my kids. Everyone looks very large; this was especially so in the barbecue place we stopped in on the way back to C’ville. But I’m not tall anymore. The transformation of language from a largely inaccessible background noise to a mode of communication is not seemless. Not only do other people’s conversations distract, but when everyone around you understands you a little self censorship is in order. Time to turn the brain/mouth filter back on. This, by the way, is a concept neither the kids nor Manuel have grokked; I am sure all four will be sent home from their respective schools at least once in the first week.

My yoga class on Wednesday night kind of captured the whole thing. For starters my regular teacher wasn’t there, and it was all new people, so no comfy yoga return. But also coming from a part of China that is extremely Buddhist, where greetings regularly involve a kind of yogic head bow, and where squatting is a way of life, not a pose, made the whole thing seem hilarious to me. The sight of white chycs in athletic tank tops with “exotic” patterns as fashion accent toting large mats and chanting Sanskrit just seemed incongruous.

Charlottesville is very invested in local food these days. I’m kind of over local food. One of my friends came over to try to take me to the farmers market the day we returned. (she also left ice cream and waffles in my freezer and took care of my ant problem for me when I was gone so she rocks) However, at the market request I pretty much laughed in her face. “A market are you crazy? All I want is groceries delivered, and I want the food I want without worrying about whether or not it’s possible in this climate.” I went to a farmers market every other day and bought all kinds of delicious locally grown produce. However, had I had the option of anything not locally grown, we would all have had an easier summer.

There’s even an oddness to the giant brick that has been lifted off my head by US safety standards. Rural China comes with multiple ways in which your children can meet their demise. In the last two days we were in China we read Chinese news stories about child kidnapping, death from tampered food at KFC, renegade escalators running people over, kids dying when roller coasters collapsed, death by plane crash, and statistics on motor vehicle death. And that was the Party news, which means it was heavily censored and hid most of the bad stuff. Even without the help of the news, it’s not hard to conjure up demise in the form of venomous snakes, poisonous spiders, motor accidents, crumbling buildings, earthquakes, mudslides, fire, flood, vicious tropical viruses, bullet trains, airplanes with no safety rules, etc… To exist there with small children and not collapse with anxiety involves simply putting every idea about the safety of your children in a little box. But to maintain that box takes a lot of mental energy. And now that we are back I have let myself think about all the things that didn’t happen; that’s scary.

While Manuel and I are walking around in a kind of haze and have yet to interact with anyone but our very closest friends, the kids seem fairly immune to the whole business. As creatures of the moment China was the new normal in May and now it’s Virginia’s turn. They have said some comical things like “do you think Ian and Caroline will remember us” (Ian and Caroline live across the street and Ian apparently wondered if they’d still understand English.) For the first day they looked for places to stash their shoes outside buildings and asked repeatedly if water was safe to drink. We also need to aggressively Chinese government style impose some new normal; we wear seatbelts, bike helmets, sit in booster seats, do not leave the house and go visiting without telling an adult, take off on our bikes at will etc… But for them home is simply where we are. When asked about the best parts of their trip they immediately talk about the vacations, which I initially thought revealed the excitement of the trips. But now my sense is that the living in the Garden part of our experience barely registers as a trip. It was simply where we stashed ourselves for a while.

Ok, I have to admit I have no clue how they have been the last couple of days because my fabulous parents have them. This is the first time in three months that I’ve been without them for more than about two hours, and I don’t miss them one bit. In fact given that the Charlottesville schools deactivated them and then failed to promote them to third grade it might not be a bad idea for my parents to just register them in Alexandria and send them to the school Pam and I went to…

There are of course countless ways in which it feels like home. Our friends filled our fridge with prosecco, beer, orange juice and milk and left chips, salsa, and coffee around the house. They also left a brilliant note, which should go in an essay on gender in the jungle, but it began “Welcome home, Family of Dr. Manuel Lerdau and servant-wife Bonnie. They set some rules for us “No air conditioning in day-time. No playing in mud. No Privacy. No bad language. No No. 2 in toilet. Outside please.” Sitting on the downtown mall eating Tacos we ran into quite a few people we know and then I had my first ever Dave Mathews citing. He was headed to the Gillian Welch concert and I saw the back of his head. In the morning I went for a run with my running lady friends and though the run practically killed me I realized how much I’d missed the collective. My neighbor came over to say Hi yesterday and it was sooooo good to see her—really made it feel like home. Although I have not so much as made a cup of coffee it feels really good to have our kitchen back. And I’ve worn nothing but shorts and tank tops since I got home—neither of which really flew in China.

Today’s my goal is to find my new office. It was moved while I was gone and I don’t even know where it is. Classes start on Tuesday. This somehow seems symbolic of the whole return. Manuel has to go in today to start freshman advising; I’m afraid he’ll focus on telling them how to get bottled water and avoid the cobra who lives two-thirds of the way up the trail. I have a few more blog posts up my sleeve processing the whole experience and then my hunch is it will all get a lot less interesting.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


We are hanging out at my parent’s house in Alexandria, recovering from the journey and visiting with family before heading back to Charlottesville. It’s funny how a three-month trip to another planet defamiliarizes the familiar. This process began as we boarded the United Airlines flight. On Chinese airlines safety precautions are suggestions rather than rules; so if the flight attendant says buckle up and stow your baggage only about 1/3 of the people bother to do it. If there is something worth looking at out the window everyone gets up to check it out; no matter what the seatbelt sign says. On United they mean business and because so many of the passengers spend more time on Chinese airlines the flight attendants were pretty busy getting all the bags stowed and passengers buckled. The only time they didn’t carefully check each row was when the pilot made the somewhat alarming announcement “fasten your seatbelts and flight attendants sit down wherever you are.”

The soundscape feels radically different here; modernization performs a kind of evening out. Cars all sound the same; no more radical difference between truck, toktok, motorbike, tractor etc… The bugs, even Virginia Cicadas barely seem audible compared to the natural cacophony that underscored everything we did in the jungle. And the breeze is a treat to hear. It also feels amazing to be clean, and I mean really cleaner than I’ve been since May. I took a long hot shower in soft water that actually rinses the soap off, and we are washing everything that came to China. Once the clothes came out of the washing machine, the grime we’ve lived with for three months seemed repulsive. And what a delight to walk into a public restroom and find both toilet paper and soap. Potable water is the best!

As I mentioned in my last post, our exit was a study in what could possibly go wrong. The first problem was that on Tuesday I got really sick; tropical virus that made it impossible for me to get out of bed for two days—two days that ought perhaps to have been spent packing, organizing stuff, finishing my syllabus etc… And I basically felt crappy the whole rest of the week. Manuel then followed this with some sort of hacking disease that made enough noise to wake up all the ghosts who reside up the hill from the house. When we finally both woke up two days before we were to leave, and Manuel went to the bank he found that it was completely out of money. Our account was in fine shape, but the bank itself had no money. The second bank in town was simply closed because it was August 13. Luckily I’ve embraced the Chinese cash economy and had a few piles of cash stashed away in my underwear drawer and my wallet so we were fine.

The real excitement was the journey from the Garden to Beijing. We have never had a problem with a driver from the Garden. But sure enough on our last and perhaps most important ride the guy was almost forty minutes late. There is only one morning flight from Jing Hong to Kunming so if you miss that it’s possible you won’t get to Beijing that day. And we wanted nothing getting in the way of our getting on that precious United flight out of China! Manuel convinced himself that we would certainly miss the flight and when we called the guy who made the van arrangements all we got was “oh my god wait a minute…” The driver arrived and neighbors tossed our bags and kids in the van and off we went on a ride that felt more like an amusement park stomach turner than a drive. It usually takes 75 minutes to get to the airport we did it in 45 and that included driving through a few sections of road that had been washed out by mudslides. By some miracle no one puked. We made it to the gate halfway through the boarding process with the kids running through the airport and Eli falling every few minutes. We arrived in Kunming and found that one of the two new bags we bought for $1 had busted leaving Rebecca’s bathing suit and Manuel’s underwear dragging along the luggage dispenser. Luckily, both bathing suit and underwear were of a style not tempting to other passengers (& there’s almost no petty crime in China) and this sort of bag explosion happens so often in China that the airport has a place where they wrap and fix bags. I had also learned the night before we left that Kunming is a center of child-snatching in China. So while we waited on line I used my iPad to read up about said snatching, which inspired me to yell at the kids every time they got more than two feet from me and conclude with a stern lecture about staying close to us unless they wanted to be stolen and sold into slavery. They were totally unimpressed and informed me that there is no slavery in the modern world. This is another one of those things that someone might have told me before our many flights through Kunming. We finally arrived in Kunming and went to look for the free shuttle that came with our hotel. That bus turned out to leave from parking slip c-0818 in the basement of being airport. The waiting area neither provided enough air to breathe or enough space to insure not being hit by a car.

As soon as we arrived at the hotel we turned around and attempted to get a cab into town to have dinner with my cousin Jordan. Our bad car karma continued and after waiting almost 40 minutes the guy arrived and informed us that he could not drive us because we were too many. We finally made it to the dumpling restaurant half an hour late and proceeded to eat our weight in delicious dumplings. My favorite was a spicy pork with celery and something else yummy. We also had one with dried shrimp, corn, spicy cabbage, and something else. Manuel ordered another delicious one that had something, something else, and a different something else. We each sucked down a 24 oz. beer in about two minutes. It was a blast to watch our kids play with Jordan’s son Jayden. I’m not sure I’ve ever met a third cousin. All four of the children started off working very hard to ignore each other and drive their parents crazy. But by the eventually bonded in the form of shooting things, not eating as much as their mothers wanted them to, and building stuff.

We all collapsed after dinner and stayed that way until we made our way to breakfast at the “swiss chalet” at 10:30. The kids did their usual, unpack every little bottle and box in the bathroom which this time included a package of condoms. This registered on our bill as “health accessory.” Manuel took the kids to the pool which had them so excited that they jumped in with their clothes on. We arrived at the airport about four hours before our flight and saw the longest line on the planet. By the time we checked in I was ready to kill the kids and they were ready to kill each other. We had hagandaz ice cream for $5 a scoop, and Jonathan spent the entire time worried that we’d miss the flights. He takes after his father and two grandfathers. Security was fine but passport control caused some trouble. The passport control people at the Beijing airport look like combat soldiers and yelled regularly. This time they yelled at me. We never figured out what I did wrong but there was a lot of incomprehensible yelling and they made me get the eye scan multiple times. The only thing that prevented me from ending up in a re-education camp was probably the “bebe” who they decided was cute. The bebe was by that point terrified and did not perform his usual cuteness. As we waited for the plane the kids had exactly one moment of playing nicely—it went by so fast that by the time we got the camera out it was done so I had very low expectations for the plane. But on the way down the mile long jetway someone took the kids and replaced them with sweet angelic kids whom the flight attendants complimented us on. They were all pleases and thankyous and quietly drank their milk and apple juice. Rebecca and Joanthan were so happy to have English reading material that they read the Hemispheres magazine cover to cover and when I attempted a skim I was told “mommy you did not skip the article about roman coins on page 17 did you.” They watched Thor which they found ridiculously inattentive to the norse mythology. They were full of ethnic observations. The first remark was “woah look at all the white people” followed by “wow there are African Americans on this plane” After a few rounds of that we decided it was time to dose them up with benedryl and they went to sleep. We zipped through us passport control and customs with no problems, which, given the number of chicken feet and bottles of moonshine we brought with us, is somewhat miraculous.

We are all exhausted and wired today. Jonathan suggested we “languish” for the day but we’ve been messing with our stuff, drinking water, and generally experiencing culture shock. More on that a little later….

Monday, August 15, 2011

Return from the Ends of the earth....

We’re in a hotel near the Beijing airport that used to be the Sino/Swiss hotel, and we can’t decide if it used to be nice and is mid-dilapidation process or if it used to be gross and is now being fixed up. In any case, it comes with plenty for the kids to do, including the usual 8 bottles of bathroom things, combs, little tea cups, TV, and a mammoth swimming pool. Yesterday’s 12-hour journey involved a harrowing trip in a speeding mini-van through a mud slide, two airplanes, and ½ an hour in the diesally airport basement waiting for the shuttle bus to the hotel. Today we look forward to our fourteen-hour flight with glee.

There’s nothing like leaving a place to put it all in some kind of perspective. This last week really has felt like watching a movie about being stuck in a tropical paradise, spending a lot of time fantasizing about getting out, and then realizing what you’ll miss... For starters just about everything that could go wrong did. In fact, so much went wrong that it needs a list in a separate post; we do, after all, still have another twenty-four hours to get through…. But I knew we were in for a long week when we arrived home from Lijeing to find the Compound ground to a halt by the presence of the wife of the director of the Chinese Academy of Science. She was staying in the house across the street from us, which meant that every night about ten police dudes came and circled the place. And every so often they closed the road in and out of the garden. So, for example, when our Indonesian neighbor went into town with her seventy three year old mother who is observing Ramadan and has arthritic knees, the police would not allow any motorized vehicles on the road to bring her back. So she called her husband who came and carried the mom on the back of his BYCYCLE. By the time we got back, the other moms were so mad that during the police imposed afternoon two hour quiet time we instructed the kids to have the loudest water fight they’d ever had. The water stand pipe sits in Mrs. Big Potato’s yard.

We ended up putting off packing until the very last minute not just out of procrastination but because both Manuel and I were struck with wretched tropical viruses. I decided while lying in bed writhing in joint pain that I was done with the whole earth mother full time thing and told Manuel he had to take charge of packing to go home. Not a single person in the compound believed me or thought he could do it. This also requires a longer post but suffice it to say that the gender politics and domestic arrangements surrounding us would have seemed patriarchal and sexist in the 1940’s.

I did deal with the food because I spent so much energy this summer acquiring and hoarding western food that I wanted to dispense the left overs. My neighbors felt that the parting gifts of Vanilla extract, baking powder, coco powder, baking soda, butter and peanut butter were a form of food nirvana. The large pharmacy we left met a similar reception. We came to China with a vast supply of medications and, knock on every piece of fake wood possible, we have needed to use very little of it. One of the very scariest things about inhabiting the particular end of the earth we did is the complete lack of medical care and of viable medication. Our neighbors in the foreigners compound all have horror stories about hospitals and doctors. They no motrin left for their kids and had no antihistamines, so when the four year old broke out in a rash over her entire body from playing in the rain forest they had no recourse. They can’t get reliable anti-malaria meds, which you need for many places easily accessible from Menglun. On a more mundane note, we left our bikes with the new foreigners who will be in the garden for two weeks and Rebecca dispensed her art supplies and nail polish in a manner that makes the way my grandmother has been discussing her will for the last thirty years seem blithe. Eli magnanimously gave each of his friends one crappy toy including the baby shrek that makes so much noise I’ve tried to bury it at least seven times—it doesn’t die. Jonathan did not want to give away a single book but eventually dispensed them.

On Friday night our next-door neighbors had a potluck in our honor, which was incredibly lovely and delicious. I wouldn’t say that I became intimate friends with the two foreign wives Sumi and Warin who live in the compound. But that the kids all call me auntie sort of captures the level of dependence and intertwining that goes on in a place like that. We lived at the ends of the earth in glass houses. I spent more time with these kids than I’ve ever spent with any who are not my own, and we all moved in and out of each others houses as if it was one big one. (there are pluses and minuses to this sort of forced intimacy…) And we were affiliated with a high-powered scientific institute that couldn’t quite decide what it wanted with foreigners. Some want them around, and some find them despicable leaches. As I’ve stressed before, living the earth mother dream in rural China is very hard work. And of the three of us (foreign moms) I had the hardest time. It’s not just that there’s a learning curve and I was only there for three months. But also villages in Indonesia and Thailand are a lot more like Menglun than Charlottesville is. And there is simply no way I could have fed my family and kept them healthy without their help. No one official told me that the lightpoles outside our house are live wires or showed me where to buy chicken breasts and yogurt.

Saturday morning Manuel and I went for a last run in the jungle. Then I hopped on the Vespa with Warin, and we drove to the dorms to pick up another woman. We zipped into town and stopped for a breakfast snack at a fabulous dumpling stand I’d never even noticed before. Then I went to the grocery store to stock up on snacks and spices to bring home. My taste for super spicy is way up, and I’ve fallen in love with a variety of hot peppers and weird spices. I bought two glass jars of delicious smoky hot pepper, which the packing commander would not let me bring home. The highlight of my day was, of course, my solo ride on the Vespa during which, contrary to Manuels fears, I neither broke my collarbone nor took out any small children or old people.

Saturday night while we were packing our American neighbor came over with an excellent bottle of scotch that we drank post mac-n-cheese. At some point I migrated next door with the women and children and the other men migrated to our house. The children reported to me that “I think the dad’s are getting really drunk and they ate all the brownies without saving us any…” The scene at the chyc house was kind of hilarious. For starters Sumi has her mom and sister visiting and they all observe Ramadan. The result for me was a constant stream of delicious but slightly mysterious homemade Indonesian snacks. My favorites were friend curried mashed potatoes and home made freetoes. I gave them a tour of their new medicine cabinet and dispensed motrin to Sumi’s mom who then asked if I was a doctor and had any medicine to make her son less skinny. The kids said extremely dramatic and tearful goodbyes to their friends, and Eli announced that actually he wanted to stay a bit longer.

When we went outside at 6 to wait for the driver (who was about half an hour late and almost made us miss our plane), we saw our neighbors coming in their nightgowns and flipflops to say goodbye. Tropical dawn is kind of magical; mist rising off the forest, birds and bugs making all kinds of sounds, and temperatures almost cool. As we sat on the steps with our friends, I realized how many arresting sights, sounds and smells I’ve experienced and how many wonderful people I’ve come to treat as family whom I would never meet in any other circumstances. And the sound of the van put putting up the hill made me feel really lucky that for us this was only a summer adventure and not a permanent way of life.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Two more days in the Jungle....

Yesterday we saw a bucket of squirming eels in the market and the biggest weirdest mushrooms I’ve ever seen under the rubric of “Food.”. New “foreigners” arrived in the garden and they also have a set of twins. On the way to dinner we met a set of Chinese tourist twins. That made three sets on the Menglun suspension bridge. The world stopped turning for just a moment. When we got to dinner and sat down on our 11 inch chairs, the lady from the Dai clothing store next door came and reminded me that I had forgotten to pick up Jonathan’s outfit at 5. So the kids and I went with her, she opened up her shop gave us the outfit and we were joined by the other five kids at dinner, and they all spent some time picking out fabric scraps. For dinner we enjoyed Dai barbecue; some of the most delicious food I’ve ever tasted including spicy sweet potato noodles, spicy grilled tofu, grilled eggplant and more. My spice tolerance and appreciation have gone up exponentially this summer.

In the morning Jonathan and I chased after a guy pulling a trishaw with large boxes, thinking it was Manuel’s long anticipated research equipment; it wasn’t. Manuel packed the box in April with his fancy lab equipment, warm clothes for Lijiang, and food including ten boxes of mac-n-cheese. The equipment was to have been the basis of his research here and part of his job was to be teaching Chinese students how to use it. The box first sat at UVa for quite some time while UVa tried to figure out how to mail it. Apparently, in the administration’s haste to develop exchange programs with China, they have not yet mastered the mail. It eventually left the US and took some sort of slow boat until it arrived in Guangzho, where it then sat for six weeks because the Asian Games shut down customs. Then it made it to Kunming where it was scheduled to come on the once a week garden bus from Kunming. It got bumped by the Communist Party’s sports equipment. And then it arrived finally yesterday afternoon on a three-wheeled motorcycle. The kids had their best snack yet of peanut butter filled pretzels, chocolate covered pretzels, and Kashi.

The punch line to these vignettes is that, in the end, the best and the worst parts of our experience coalesce and all involve staying long enough that we no longer qualify at tourists. When the kids scoff at busses of tourists lollygagging through the garden they have a point. That means that even the most gorgeous and fascinating things change their timbre when they become the background noise of daily life. For starters, the entire basis of Manuel’s science project—the reason we are all here with our staph infections—got held up by the machine of a repressive government concerned among other things about the threat of Annie’s mac-n-cheese and gas chromatographs. That sort of hold up is a reality of living here. It’s fascinating to read the People’s Daily and to think about the bizarre counterpoint of a communist government and a capitalist economic system on speed. Indeed, our visit to LIjiang made a study of that phenomenon. What happens when the Chinese government decides to make a place that was closed to foreigners until the mid ‘80s and did not have a real airport until 1995 a major tourist destination? From what I can tell, such a rapid opening up leads hundreds of pashmina shops and thousands of Chinese tourists who come out in the evening to buy them in crowds that make a Perugia passigiato or the Washington DC national mall look like a lonely mountaintop. But it’s not so fascinating when your peanut butter sits in Guangzho for six weeks and when capitalism has not arrived in your village so no amount of money can buy what you think you need. Nor is the regime all that captivating when you wake up every single morning and say hi to the spy cameras. It’s actually giving me exhibitionist fantasies, which my children seem to be acting out for me. The tropical plants blow my mind every day, and I can understand why anyone would pay big money just to have one walk through this garden. But those plants require temperatures over 90 and a humidity of 100% every day for months; conditions which local air conditioners can’t cope with. That’s not easy to live with. And it is extremely satisfying to learn some of a language that three months ago barely registered as a mode of communication to me. But it would have been a hell of a lot easier to learn those words if this place had cared enough about the foreigners it is avidly recruiting to provide someone who actually knows how to teach Chinese…. And it’s kind of funny when I think I’m talking about mud to someone and it turns out I’ve said something about monkeys. But it’s not that funny when the grocery store lady takes my egg carton away because I can’t explain to her that I brought it from Jinghong and that I’m simply incapable to safely brining eggs home without a carton. And it’s even less funny when every so often I lie awake at night wondering what I’d do if the staph infections went septic or the kids got Dengue fever and there was no one less than a plan flight away with even rudimentary medical training who could understand me.

Today I’m feeding all the foreign kids lunch with my ten boxes of mac-n-cheese. I promised the kids a post-lunch water fight, and I’m sure they will make their way outside to the mud and water when the afternoon deluge comes. I do hope none of them touches the streetlight pole that becomes live when it rains; the last thing we need is another minor electrocution. There’s lot about this experience that I wouldn’t trade, but that doesn’t mean it was all fun and games. I suppose it’s not unlike the business of being a musicologist. Often when I tell people I teach music history they response is “oh how lovely” as if all we do all day is sit around listening to good music. It’s also a job and has moments of sucking as much as any other job.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Big Gongs...

We’re back from our vacation in Lijiang. The return trip to the jungle was only an hour flight, but we got off the plane to temperatures that were a good 20 degrees hotter and to 100% humidity. The kids looked like something out of the movies as they shielded their eyes from the sun and immediately seemed to wilt. Within about eleven minutes of returning we had an extra five girls in the house, and by an hour later all of them had gone outside for the ritual afternoon mud and tropical rainstorm play.

One of the highlights of the trip for all of us was Friday night’s concert of the “ancient naxi music ensemble.” We chose Lijiang, as opposed to some other Himalayan destinations, because Manuel’s Chinese ping pong buddy suggested the music. .He was totally right. I found it fascinating both as a sound experience and as ethnography. It turned out that when they said kids get in free they meant kids don’t have seats, so all five of us sat in two seats—comfy. The kids were captivated for an hour and half and then got restless. The musicians averaged about 80 and the M.C. introduced them as “aged musicians” touting their ages with great pride. Seven were over 80, four looked to be under 60, and about nine were in-between. They all slowly walked (or hobbled) onto the stage wearing brightly colored silk clothing.

For some one who has heard very little traditional Chinese music, parts of it had that sonic shock value that one gets at a really radical new music concert; it’s just sounds that bend the ear. The instruments could all be described as “original” instruments, and many had been buried for safe keeping during the Cultural Revolution or made by the players themselves. They included bowed and plucked string instruments, bamboo transverse flutes, some double reed type and lots of percussion, especially cool looking gongs. They had a two hundred year old “ten chiming gong.” I liked the huquin that looked like a giant bamboo theorbo. The striking thing about the instruments is the pitch variability. They all tune to different pitches, and they tune to pitches that to a western trained ear sound almost impossible to tune to, like, for example, a D#. It’s like hearing early music groups tune to a 415 A; if you have perfect pitch it sounds out of tune. And to a western trained ear the radical heterophony is captivating. (that means that each player interprets the basic melody in a slightly different way) The result is an unpredictable melody that’s hard for the ear to capture. The line between melody and accompaniment also seems at times almost nonexistent. The players lean on the dissonances created by their separate tunes. It sounds corny, but it oddly reminded me of the waterways in the town itself, with little branches flowing away and then coming back together. The string players and singers favor a super-wide vibrato that makes the lack of equal temperament even more decentering; again, it’s hard for the ear to capture a pitch. Rebecca wanted to know how the singers made their voices do that and then said “don’t tell me we’ll need to find a Chinese musicologist to figure it out…” Jonathan thought they needed to tune up a little more.

The orchestra leader, Xuan Ke, addresses audiences each night with stories and historical lessons. And he makes it very clear that he intends to preserve a traditional art that, in the end, is not especially naxi. The groups repertoire is mostly based on Donjing music, that was used by the literati in the Tang and Song dynasties as part of musical rituals. He explained that many of the sounds and instruments came from the Han Chinese ethnic majority. That’s probably why quite a bit of it sounded familiar to me. I’ve heard Han music but had never heard of the Naxi until a few weeks ago. Until 1949 the music served religious ends, while now it is entirely secular. The group leader explained all of this even as he emphasized the Naxi ethnicity of the players and the Naxi “spirit” of the tune. So there’s a dissonant combination of the performance on an ethnic identity through the assimilation of dominant sounds.

I have to admit that part of what I loved about it was that it provided a refreshing break from the incessant irritating pop music I hear day in and day out here. There’s one song that has the words “darling darling darling darling” and uses exactly two chords for the full twenty minutes it takes to get through. I came to rural China expecting to find some really cool tunes; I’ve read about and taught traditional Chinese music. And I’ve heard plenty of it on CD’s. And I’ve read about, taught, and listened to plenty of Asian hip hop and rock sounds that really rock my world. But the truth is that out in the stix here mostly what I hear is heavily western influenced. Even so called traditional tunes or Red songs are westernized, accompanied by synthesized pianos and cellos with the occasional pipa for some accent. The homophonic texture once in a while gets a little polyphonic and singers give a nod to the wide vibrato of traditional music. I’ve never heard so many sequences in my life. Today in the cab I thought the CD was stuck. My smallest child is sadly obsessed with Celine Dion and the modulations of what I hear day in and day out pretty much sound like her.

And as it turns out, I’m exactly the target audience for Naxi Traditional Music. Lijiang is now a huge tourist destination for Chinese tourists and the majority of the audience was Chinese. But it also contained the most white people I’ve seen in one space in three months. And, given the combo of young euro backpackers and wealthy over sixty brits & germans (all toting around Lonely Planet), I’m thinking they, like me, had fantasies of a musical China that did not involve Darling Darling Darling or Lady Gaga. The orchestra bills itself as playing music that is “unchanged ancient dynasty”. English guide books suggest these events as highlights of a visit to Lijiang which stands as a “pure” and “untouched” city.

My hunch is that the music serves a similar role for Chinese tourists. Yunnan province is something of a minority heaven, with twenty five separate groups and, as far as I can tell, each and every one of them is portrayed as good at singing and dancing while their women are lovely in their brightly colored traditional garb. As long as they stay docile the Chinese (Han) government seems to like its minorities. My sense is that when it comes to minority arts the Chinese may even be more orientalist than Western tourists at this point. Every bit of state sponsored literature in translation presents minorities as an exotic other to a more staid and far less expressive Han majority. And every city in Yunan has an ethnic dance and singing group, usually featuring scantily clad women dancing to fairly western sounding orchestras with the same sort of “chinese color” as I hear in the pop music. The Chinese government comes by this naturally. Mao after all spent quite a bit of capital organizing ethnic groups and their musics and encouraging them to make their music “more scientific”

Despite the clear cone of silence around the cultural revolution, this particular orchestra clearly has an agenda. The leader worked as a conductor in Kunming when the red army entered and was eventually sentenced to re-education in a forced labor camp where he was tortured. We heard a story about the “very stupid history” of China as embodied in foot binding. (the kids are now obsessed with foot binding) Manuel thinks that was all code for the Cultural Revolution, and he’s probably right. Regardless of whether or not lurid details of uncles breaking the feet of four year old girls actually stand in for the persecution of artists and intellectuals, the group does present a stunning musical narrative of cultural preservation and survival. The “aged” musicians in their wire glasses could well be the intellectuals and artists pictured in any number of films and books about the torture of intellectuals. And, as we learned, many of the musicians in this group, hid their instruments during the Cultural Revolution, and a number of them were sent out for ‘reform’ as well.

But, despite all of this, I loved it and wish the kids had lasted through the entire thing. I’ve heard traditional Chinese music but I’ve never heard it live. And it’s like any other kind of performance; better, colorful and simply more arresting when heard live. That kind of completely unpredictable polyrhythm feels different when you hear it in real time because you really don’t know where it’s going next. The tunning song gave a real sense of the variabilities of pitch and of the way timbre invariably inflects pitch. And the musicians made mistakes, which is also part of the performance. At one point during a performance of “Yunnan” opera, the instrumentalists started playing the wrong accompaniment. And, indeed, the fact that the group leader had his fingers broken in a forced labor camp made the whole thing that much more poignant to me. It’s true that the group works hard to create a package of the preservation of an ancient tradition that, in some ways, never existed. But the package did not mute the sounds for me.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Budahs and Horses

On Thursday we woke up and had breakfast in the hotel. Just next to our table stood a statue with a giant erect penis and big boobs. I can’t figure out who he/she is but I remember my mom and sister taking lots of pictures of him in Katmandu so he/she is obviously important. That hardly registered as interesting by the end of the day.

Our Mongolian guide arrived to pick us up at 9 in a van with a driver. Three months ago the 1970’s van that looked like it would barely make it around the block might have set off alarm bells. But as long as I didn’t have to get on a cable car I was fine. Heading out of town we passed the weekly cattle market and eventually arrived at Zhiyun Montestary. The budhists here practice a sect of Tibetan Buddhism knows as “Red Hat” Buddhism. Originally built in 1727, it had thirteen courtyards, most of which were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. We pulled right up to the temple, which was at that point completely empty. As we pulled up we saw two hundred year old trees covered with Prayer Flags; each little flag carries a prayer spread through the world by the wind. The brightly colored cloths blowing in the wind entranced the kids, and, in fact, the whole thing had a silencing effect on them. Visiting a giant Buddhist temple is not unlike visiting the Vatican with Jewish kids; the little synagogue in C’ville seems pretty boring by comparison. We walked through a number of courtyards inadvertently following the sound of Tibetan monks giving “singing lessons” to “baby monks.” My mind is not easily quieted; it takes usually a good hour and a half of yoga to do it but there is something essentially peaceful about an almost empty Tibetan Monastery in the Himalayas with a view of snow capped mountains and valley lakes. The kids loved the prayer wheels, though they experienced no real quieting effect. Eli ran through them, making them go as fast as he could occationally chanting either “ohm shanti shanti….” Or “sun yat sen sun yat sen” Like the prayer flags, the prayer wheels carry mantras which spread through the motion of the wheels.

In many ways this place represented the western fantasy of a Buddhist temple; gorgeous, quiet, almost empty. Even I, who can’t sit still, could imagine sitting for a long time there just listening and looking. We’ve spent a lot of time in Buddhist places this summer, and I have to disagree with White Buddhists friends who say it’s a philosophy and not a religion. There’s no doubt that the Buddhists here think of it as a religion where prayer to a god yields some tangible benefit. For example, we saw a painting of The Buddha of Wealth, whom people pray to so they can make more money. There’s no doubt these Buddhists are doing quite a bit of unabashed idol worship. I also got a kick out of the Buddah of Hooch (baijo). He had a bottle of the ever-present hooch, which the monks refill every day; when you pray to him you supposed to take a swig. The kids liked the idea of a protection cord, which you also purchase. We did not. Doing that in a sacred space seemed a little like taking communion in a Catholic church—don’t do it if you don’t believe it because it’s disrespectful.

We then hiked up a mountain path to the “new monastery” which is being built predominantly as a tourist trap. Along the way our driver picked mushrooms and berries for the kids to eat. (they refused) We arrived huffing and puffing at a construction site. In addition to the usual scaffolding, dangerous construction implements, etc., it had Tankas and Buddhas in varying states of completion. Watching the temple painters was truly fascinating. It’s easy to forget that all of those gorgeous multicolored walls require precise hands to create. They had a huge palate of colors and worked with tiny brushes—the kind I think of as useful for individual canvasses, not mammoth walls. Thanks to the fact that temple construction sites in China pay no more attention than bullet trains to safety we got to climb around the whole thing and at each level of the building saw new and exciting things. We all liked watching the guy who sketches the paintings for the entire thing. He did with a super fine brush and black ink. We hiked to another courtyard, which will eventually house two fertility Buddhas; a male one and a female one. The sight of a ginormous raw uncut Buddha came off as somewhere between grotesque and profane; yet completely fascinating.

As we hiked back to the entrance we came upon a group of baby monks on break from school. Let’s just say that they made me feel much better about the sometimes-violent tendencies of my boys as none of the peaceful side of Buddhism had affected them yet. They were running around, screaming, hitting, tackling, and pinning each other down. Rebecca got herself right in the middle of the action and made sure the monklets all noticed her, while Eli and Jonathan stayed far out of the way. As always, there is a slightly darker underbelly to the young boys in monk garb inhabiting a gorgeous place. The education system in the monasteries is pretty terrible and caters predominantly to very poor families and orphans who have absolutely no other option besides starvation or street life. As our guide said, being a monk is pretty good job.

We hoped back in the van and bumpety bumped down a very narrow muddy mountain pass. The bumps and heights bruised my butt and made me totally nauseous. Little did I know this was just the beginning… We finally arrived at a little outpost in the middle of nowhere, which is a 1400 year old village, where we mounted horses. Yes all five of us got on horses and proceeded to ride them for TWO AND A HALF HOURS. The good part of the riding thing was that, given the altitude, we never would have made it that high on foot and the view was truly spectacular; mind boggling clear. We had been reading and hearing about how the region are Lijiang was very poor, and we saw that clearly as we rode. The only source of money for the villagers are these tourist horse trips, and they grow most of their crops to feed to their horses. Almost none of the kids here go to school. The two dominant crops are corn and a mystery green, both for horses. There was also rape, which they use for oil, and white bean, which they eat. They intercrop sunflower with the bean and corn, but it grown more for fun. Pot is an important cash crop, and we saw a lovely little stand, but given the penalties for possession here, neither of us was tempted. (At the end of the day we learned that the Canadian our guide had planned to go into business with was currently sitting in a Dali prison for pot)

Rebecca LOVED riding a horse and charmed the guide, who claimed that she is a natural. Jonathan told me that the horse idea was the worst idea I’d ever had. Part of me agrees. I pretty much hate riding horses. Eli rode with the guide and Jonathan rode with me. Given that two years ago we could barely get Jonathan on a carousel, he did remarkable well. Again, I recommend a summer in China as immersion Occupational Therapy. If your kid has vestibular motion problems stick them on a horse that cantors up steep slopes. My and J’s horse seemed to be channeling us when at moments it simply stopped and refused to go and every time I heard the guy yell at the horses I imagined us all careening to our death down the mountain side. The horse guide had a lovely voice and treated us to some nice Naxi tunes as well as the Naxi mountain greeting which is kind of like a yodel. Manuel, who had never before been on a horse, claimed to enjoy it, but I am skeptical. He was, however, the only one of us did the whole ride without a guide leading his horse.

On the way back to the hotel we were supposed to stop in a Naxi village to admire frescoes and Tanka paintings. We did stop, but by 4:00 with a monastary and horse ride behind them and no lunch, the kids pretty much busted. We zipped through the master embroidery lady’s studio in about three minutes and piled back into the van. We arrived back at the hotel at 5 and collapsed.

As a side note we were all pleasantly freezing all day. The temperature was in the 70’s. I know we’ve missed the heat wave of the century on the East Coast, but in the jungle the temperature has been above 90 with 100% humidity every single day since May and we have no AC during the day.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


When we got off the plane yesterday Rebecca said “Johnathan we are IN the Himalayas. I mean REALLY we are IN the Himalayas. That’s so weird and so cool” I’m not sure why after a summer of seeing the Great Wall, living in a rainforest and going to Saigon this finally struck her as remarkable but… Jonathan said later “you know we’ve been traveling around so much that we just adjust immediately” And it’s true they have become shockingly flexible and worldly in their own weird way. I did have serious fantasies of throwing all three of them out the taxi cab window while we were driving over a narrow mountain pass and they were playing some game that involved head bonking, leaning, and lots of noise and me as a kind of home base.

Thus far the trip has been our smoothest yet. Getting out of the garden had the usual complications. We were supposed to leave at noon but at 12:45 someone called and said we had to leave at 11:00. And then it turned out that on the way to the airport we had to drop off our neighbor at the hospital. Her sister is visiting from Indonesia and they think it might be cheaper to get a surgery here. Our plane was parked in the absolute last spot on in the plane parking lot and as we walked for a good half-mile on the hot tarmac the whole thing started to worry me. Needless to say the bullet train thing has me panicked about transit.

We arrived in Lijiang yesterday afternoon. It’s at 8000 feet, which is about the same as Aspen Colorado. Manuel and I both have killer headaches but the kids seem to be fine. The weather forecast, including the pilot on the plane, said it would either be 76 or 96 degrees, and luckily it was 76, which actually left us all kind of freezing—in a good way. It’s amazing to me how massively different this place is given that it’s only an hour flight away from where we live. We can see the mountains in every direction. The colors are darker than where we are and the whole place just feels different. My sister spent a semester in college studying Tibetan Budishm and spent time in Nepal, Dharmsala, and Bhutan. It looks a lot like her pictures, from the scenery to the architecture. The cultural and architectural differences make Vermont and Santa Fe seem almost identical. I assume some of this is because we wiped out the vastly different cultures, and the Chinese in their own way, have preserved them. But also there’s a kind of enforced stability here. To move cities here still requires permission. In other words you can get a job in another city but you need permission to move there. And there are places like where we live that are shockingly isolated; no one leaves and no one travels.

Our hotel sits at the edge of the old town. The new town was built during the China/Soviet love affair and is positively Stalinist. Parts of it look like the housing project I lived in in Bratislava. The old town on the other hand is jumbled cobblestone streets with wooden buildings. Apparently during a giant earthquake in 1996 the new town basically crumbled and the old town did fine. The wooden houses sway when the earth moves. So the government sunk a lot of money reverting to old styles.

For dinner we wandered to the old town in search of a Tibetan restaurant touted by Lonely Planet. Like Charlottesville it’s full of Tibetan refugees selling pashminas, which Rebecca and I immediately bought because we were cold and NEEDED them. Jonathan wants a poncho today but is a little concerned that men don’t wear them. He then explained that they do in Peru and he has some Peruvian blood so it should work out. We located the Tibetan restaurant despite having no real map. The first clue was all the white people and the Tonka paintings familiar to me from my sister’s Tibetan Buddhist phase. (she didn’t take refuge but she was into it). As promised the place was gorgeous and, sitting in couches, on the second floor we had a great seat for people watching. Jonathan, our pathologically finicky eater who spent years in feeding therapy, shocked us by saying “Hmmm there are lots of interesting things to try here. I’d like to sample the local goat cheese…” So we ordered a Tibetan feast of soup with yak meat, yak dumplings, goat cheese on Tibetan flat bread, and fried yak cheese. The kids had real unpasteurized milk.

Today we’re off to tour some ancient Chinese villages with a guide from inner Mongolia. I think we might be riding some horses up to a really old one. I refused to go near a Chinese cable car but Chinese horses seem ok. I’m hoping evolution trumps culture in their case.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Best Stuff

Last week we had an American grad student over for dinner, and he asked what the best and worst parts of our experience in China had been. It took only a few minutes for us to come up with the worst: flood, fire, boils (the Passover plagues part). We had this conversation while enjoying a meal of all western food; pasta with garlic and oil, chicken parmigian, French wine, and chocolate peanut butter cake, and we very quickly moved to the frustrations of China. This seems to be a normal pattern when foreigners get together; the exchange of pleasantries followed quickly by complaints, which, with the proper amount of alcohol, can be brutal and hilarious at the same time. Inevitably, like David Sederis, we all get around to stories of being spat on during someone’s juicy hock gone wrong. And, of course, the sanitation standards that are shockingly low. Crazy encounters with vehicles rank high in these sorts of conversation. And we all have them. A couple of nights ago my neighbor and I took one look at a completely full electric car and jumped aboard with six kids. That meant we were basically both holding our babies sticking out of the car and our big kids were snuggled up on laps of people they’d never met. Then we got a ride to the Dai villiage in a “tok tok”, which is kind of like a motorcycle with the butt of a covered pick-up truck on it. We think we paid an extra fee for the two American men we had with us. Both are significantly larger than the local population.

But then came the question of what has been the best thing about living here. In the end it’s hard to come up with the best because the best and the worst probably amount to the same things. It’s all amazing; but its day in and day out amazing sometimes gets to be too much. I’ve been trying to get the kids to tell me what they have liked best. They said the swimming pool in Vietnam and the Great Wall. I agree on both counts. The Wall is truly a wonder of the world, and I imagine it as one of those images that will stay with me for ever; like an image of standing on top of Masada with my sister twenty five years ago that is still vivid in my imagination.

I need to think about this a little more but here’s some things for starters that are on the best list.

The whole sensory experience of being here stuns me almost every day. This is indeed one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. I’ve run pretty much all over the world but this might be the best run yet. I regularly run through palm trees, banana trees, tea plants, coffee beans, exotic flowers, mango trees, and more. I have a thing for banana leaves; a leaf that is taller than me seems almost supernatural. Some of the food we’ve had also ranks as some of the best meals ever. It just feels different on the tongue. It’s also a new soundscape, which is a rare experience as an adult. It’s not just the language, which is tonal and runs through a whole different set of guttural sounds than IndoEuropeanphones are used to. The bugs frog, and birds make different noises too. And even though we are in the middle of nowhere we, like every other remote location in the world, have plenty of technological sounds. We have hypermodern cell phones beeping out but also vehicles that are to cars that go on American cars what a record from 1920 is to a Radio Head CD.

I love the market. It’s true that sometimes it pisses me off; especially when I can’t get what I want, when too many people stare at me, when it’s so hot I can barely breathe. You never know what you’re going to find there; sometimes there are eels and snake heads. Some afternoons feature more wild mushrooms then I knew existed. The smells overwhelm; some of it delicious grilled meats and some of it a kind of rotted meat stench that makes me want to puke ever time. It’s a very slow paced market; not the kind you can rush through and this allows for great people watching; baby monks in from the monastery, Dai women in gorgeous brightly colored outfits, tiny women carrying huge baskets on their shoulders, men in shorts fanning themselves with magazines and more…

Of course we are now a little less than two weeks from leaving, and the bottom line is that we are all ready to come home. I don’t think we stayed two weeks too long I think the last bit of time in a far away place is always hard. We are hot and tired and more often then not thinking about the frustrations of living in a part of China that is still a developing country and in a place where between spy cameras and firewire it really does feel like Big Brother is watching. But my plan is to get the kids to spend a bit of time each day thinking of what they like best. This will help me do it too.

Tomorrow we head to Lijiang which turns out to be at 8000 ft. So wish us luck with the kids at high altitude!