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.