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!

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