Southern Hospitality Widespread in Guizhou Province

The people of Guizhou province are the friendliest, most hospitable and generous individuals I have ever met in China. This observation is even clearer now that I’m back in Beijing, where everyone snarls at one another. Could be southern hospitality like in the States, though I wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to ask a stranger to use their toilet in Texas…Probably not.

I was hiking down a hill toward a small village in Langdong when typical bouts of stomachache set in — bathroom emergency. The first house my friend, Yoyo, and I came across we asked to use the bathroom. Not only did the grandfather agree to let me let my bowels loose in his home (excuse the graphics!),  he also provided generous amounts of toilet paper!! This, being in a place where public bathrooms still charge tourists and everyone carries toilet paper on them at all times (except me because I always forget)!  I was so grateful I didn’t even mind the snorting hog in the next pen.

On my way out, the grandfather invited me and Yoyo to stay for breakfast with him and his grandson. We courteously refused — we wanted to witness the process of making handmade tofu at another home in the village — but we sat for a little while.

    

I was invited to “sit a while” by numerous neighborly strangers throughout Guizhou. I experienced a similar kind of welcomeness in Morocco where I was constantly invited to have tea and stay for free  in peoples’ homes. Sometimes yes, the hosts had intentions of making money. But in one of China’s poorest provinces, how could I not buy the handmade batik (wax art on cloth) that the nice lady overcharged my American companion for and then for which she offered me a “local” price? Especially after she voluntarily showed us around her ancient stone village?

Though Guizhou is home to many ethnic minority groups, I spent most of my time in Qiandongnan Prefecture where Miao villages are predominant. We saw people, most noticeably women because of their dress, from other minority groups such as Dong and Gejia, but most were Miao (Hmong).

When I told a Beijinger that I spent time in Miao villages, she remarked that Miao women are very beautiful. It’s true. Miao people have different features from Han (the majority–I’m Han). They have big, deep-set eyes and creased eyelids (now available via a simple surgical procedure), and their skin is darker from the powerful southern sun. Their costumes vary from region to region, as well as by age. In Huangping, for example, older women wear plain, bun-shaped hats while younger women wear more colorful ones. Old women just wrap towels around their heads, and instead of flowery garments, they wear undecorated royal blue robes. In Kaili, Leishan, Langde and Xijiang, women wear their hair in buns on the top of their heads, often supported by black yarn to resemble more hair. They decorate their hair with fake flowers and colorful pins and a special comb, but with different details from village to village.

Huangping

 Leishan

Photo credit: Judy Manton

Langde

(2nd photo credit: Judy Manton)

And how ’bout this fine gentleman sporting a Soviet winter hat in the middle of summer?

Stone Village, Anshun

Whole elaborate outfits are only worn for festivals. Women spend lots of time and money — often thousands and thousands of Yuan — embroidering, sewing, pleating and decorating these garments by hand. A small piece of hand-embroidery is worth hundreds, even thousands, of Yuan because it is so meticulous.

The silver they wear around their necks, on their heads and in their ears weigh a lot. But silver is believed to cast away evil spirits, so people always wear it, most often as a bracelet. Naturally, I bought one for myself.  I like to think that the silver not only protects me from evil, but also connects me to Guizhou.

It’s a relief to know that there are still people in China who are kind, un-abrasive, patient, and honest. I’ve been in Beijing for 3 days now and already feel anger and frustration in the pit of my stomach because people here can be so cold, which is ironic because it’s steaming outside.

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The End of Spring Festival. Hallelujah!

Today is Lantern Festival, the 15th day in the first lunar month and another one of China’s million holidays. Best of all, it marks the end of Spring Festival which means all the droning sounds of fireworks that reverberate through my bones can legally stop after tonight. Thank goodness. I’m tired of feeling my stomach turned inside out from sudden BOOM!s that explode in front, next to or behind me. Sure, fireworks are pretty. Pretty annoying. They’re nice from a distance, or on the 4th of July which happens only once a year. But these incessant explosions resonate through my neighborhood–and the entire country–and resemble sounds of what I imagine would be a war zone.

Fireworks are traditionally used in China to ward off evil spirits, but for a country that has been bombed in cruel quantity I’m surprised the explosions don’t cause a psychological fury among the older generations who lived through those years. Instead, it is probably more of a nuisance, or more likely they have drowned out the ruckus. As this is my first Spring Festival here, I’m still getting used to all the noise, but I can’t say I like it very much. The thunderous sounds startle me to the point where I feel a slight heart attack coming on. I don’t like thunder. I also don’t like fire, and fireworks cause fires all the time.

One guy was blinded, several homes caught on fire because sparks got in them (you can set off fireworks literally anywhere, like right outside my window), an outdoor market selling fireworks exploded. All shitty ways to start a new year. Hate to be Negative Nancy here people, but fireworks are dangerous. And they’re detrimental to the already hazardous air quality here. I’d like to live a little longer. No more fireworks, PLEASE! 

Here are some photos I took in between my complaining. I have to admit it is pretty cool to see fireworks from where I’m sitting, but my sanity can only handle so much.

Firecrackers

Yeah. Imagine hearing that every second of your day. For 2 weeks straight. Mmhm. That’s what I thought.

Here's what I see walking down the street towards home.

View from balcony in Chongqing

Right next to us...mmmmhmmm that's how fires start.

Looks like a fire is starting already!!

I’ve posted some videos so you can feel the agony my ears are going through but also see the admittedly beautiful views from my window and rooftop.

(Don’t make fun. I laugh like a moronic hyena. A doofus. I sound happy in these videos because I was excited to see fireworks up close and I’m easily excitable. Obviously that enthusiasm has since faded.)

(Don’t make fun. I yell for “mommy” in the following video. Yes, I admit it. I still call my mom mommy and my dad daddy. I’ve been doing it since I could speak, and therefore got used to it and it stuck. I’ll probably still be calling them mommy and daddy when I’m a mommy. Deal with it.)

(Those of you reading this blog freshly published probably can’t see the last video because it’s taking FOREVER to upload onto youtube. Check back in 2 hours!! Apologies.)


I’m Back!

For the past 2 weeks I have been visiting Grandma He and paternal family in Chongqing to celebrate 春節 (Chūnjié), Spring  Festival/Chinese New Year  (Year of the Dragon!). This was my first Spring Festival, a 15-day celebration (1/15-2/6), in the motherland. In the States, this holiday meant little to me but huge potlucks with our Chinese family friends in Boston, an annual event that sadly diminished as I got older.

Grandma He, the cutest most grandma-ey-ist grandma on earth!

The spirit of Spring Festival is equivalent to the entire holiday season back home which explains why the spirit I was missing around Christmas was far but made up for. Red lanterns hung everywhere, businesses offered special 春節 discounts, train tickets sold out, a week off from work, traffic cleared up (AMAZING), bags packed and most everybody was back home with their families, and I with mine.

Spring Festival has a lot of traditions that I don’t think my family keeps to. But the ones we did maintain this year included eating a Reunion Dinner,  cringing as we watched the annual Spring Festival Evening Broadcast (6 hours of flashy, cheesy music, dance, and comedy) on TV, exchanging red envelopes ($$$!), eating “rice dumplings” filled with black sesame (nom nom), and setting off fireworks (terrifying). I read in the China Daily that at least 70% Chinese people gain weight over this break, and according to my scale, this is accurate.

Right next to our balcony!

We did a whole lot of sitting around this holiday, but that’s part of the tradition: being at home. However, when I wasn’t at home learning how to knit socks with my grandma, stifling her dogs with my love and affection, munching on snacks, playing games on my phone, sniffling because of my cold, and freezing my buttocks off because there’s no indoor heating in the south, I was out and about with my parents, throwing ourselves in the mix of massive crowds. My uncle, a Chinese history professor turned businessman, took us to several awesome places I never knew existed including Dazu Mountain, Longxing Ancient Town, the former Communist Party headquarters in Chongqing, and Baigongguan (Kuomintang’s cruel prison for Communists in the 1940s). We even took a 2 hour train ride to Chengdu, the city with the best food–and pandas–in the world! Don’t you worry, I’ll write more about that trip in another post.

If there were a sudden natural disaster, we would all be doomed. (Photo taken at Ciqikou)

Sakyamuni Entering State of Nirvana at Dazu Mountain

Longxing Ancient Town: Mahjohng Haven

A room in the Communist Party headquarters (photographs were not allowed so don't tell!)

Cave for Interrogation at Baigongguan

Me and Yoshitomo Nara's Little Red Riding Hood at Chongqing's Three Gorges Museum

I’m back in Beijing now, 10 degrees colder outside but infinitely warmer and more comfortable indoors, and fireworks are still exploding (quite an annoyance). I have many, many more photos to show you but I’ll post them in installments to keep you comin’ back for more!! I will, however, leave you with this:

My dad.


“The Classical Music Revolution of China”

I just read an editorial piece in the New York Times about classical music and it’s place among the Occupy Wall Street movement that got me thinking about my own family. “From the Medici family and Ludwig of Bavaria to Andrew Carnegie and David H. Koch, classical music, like other performing arts, has long depended on the 1 percent,” writes Anthony Tommasini. This is not so far off in China either, at least not nowadays.

The arts are an important component to China’s cultural inheritance. Mao himself was a poet and a lover of music — granted, the only music allowed during his regime were “Red Songs” with lyrics from his own poetry, but it was music nonetheless. Classical music was not introduced to China until the late 1970s under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. A professor from the Central Conservatory of Music had written Deng a letter requesting permission to enroll students after a 10-year dry spell during the Cultural Revolution–a timely request as Deng was set on modernizing China, opening doors to western influence, and consequently classical music. Permission granted,  17,285 people lined up for the college entrance examination. Narrowed down to 105 total enrollments, my mom was one of 20 singers from all of China to join the ranks. This was the first wave of a new revolution — what I call the “Classical Music Revolution of China.”

My dad followed my mom’s footsteps shortly after, and post graduation, followed her to the United States where she pursued her career in opera, and had me. Growing up,  classical music and the arts in general, surrounded me. (I am writing this post while my mom’s student is roaring Italian lyrics downstairs.) Our family friends were literally all involved in the arts, and while I dabbled in it, I did not end up a musician–a great mystery and shame to many.

My mom as CioCio Sun in Madame Butterfly.

In the west, my mom could study music with American and European teachers, while in the east, the field was still developing. I remember as a child touring around the States watching her perform in Madame Butterfly, La Boheme and Carmen, among others. She also traveled all over the world, singing operas in various European languages. Her career flourished in the west, where opera was an occasion for dressing up and showing off wealth and culture. In the wake of rising tuitions and increasing economic disparity, this is one of Occupy Wall Street’s arguments; performing arts are elitist.

There is no doubt that classical music has historically been limited to the upper class, but as Tommasini points out in his article, there is today an abundance of free and affordable performing arts events throughout New York City.  Similarly in China, attending a performance at the National Center for the Performing Arts is not a cheap ordeal. But there are events scattered throughout Beijing that are accessible to those who are curious or interested. The school my mom works for (the high school attached to the Central Conservatory of Music), for example, often puts on free performances for the public. Too bad the turnouts remain to be low.

Many of my mom’s students come from the wealthiest of families — sons and daughters of leaders in the coal industry, an army surgeon, TV/movie stars, political figures, and various successful businesspeople. This is a major difference between music students today and music students from my parents’ generation. My parents were extremely poor when they began schooling, as were all families during that time, but again, classical music was just a budding interest then. Now that the west has full-blown influence over Chinese society and culture (much to Hu Jingtao’s dismay), classical music has become a popular career path. However, only those who can afford the education can find a place in that field, unless you are blessed with a voice that penetrates the heart and soul of the judges at your audition.

I completely agree with Occupy Wall Street protestors that “the main issue regarding performing arts institutions is not inaccessibility but insularity,” because as I said, you have to have the funds to pursue this career. I have questioned my parents’ morality for working for government-run and arguably profit-oriented schools, but after having witnessed their frustrations, the dead ends, and watching my mom teach tirelessly, my mind changed. My parents’ passion for music and grounded dedication to their students are reason enough for my admiration (besides being their only child of course). And from personal encounters with these students, they’re not so bad. Sure, some are snobby teenagers with brand name clothing and a private apartment, but where in the world are there not such people? They are like any other child striving to achieve their dreams as musicians–just like hip hop artists, baseball players, doctors and lawyers–who happen to come from the 1% (most who work their butts off to support their child’s dreams).

There are  many things I find wrong with Chinese society (as you may have determined from my previous posts), but one thing I have come to appreciate during my time here is the cultural fervor. Don’t get me wrong, I am aware that many Chinese artists are suppressed, exiled, jailed, because I am lucky to have an outlet to both eastern and western news, but just knowing that they exist excites me because I sense the kindling of a counterrevolution. And knowing that my parents are part of this movement — whether they see it as that or not — makes me very proud to be their daughter.

Life is definitely different now that my parents are classical-music-big-shots as opposed to lower- to middle- class immigrants, but I will never consider our family elitist. We are just a loving bunch of teachers committed to passing on what we know to whoever will listen.


What it Means to Be Born in the Year of the Dragon

Well so it is! 2012, year of the dignified Dragon (and the end of the world?!?!), a much sought after Chinese zodiac sign that symbolizes power, strength and good luck–so badass the Emperor of China used it to symbolize his imperial power. Parents have long been planning their pregnancies around this new year so that their children can take after me, a proud Dragoness of 1988.

I always brag about being born in the year of the dragon because Chinese people always respond excitedly to it. Now that I have lived through 2 cycles oblivious to what being a dragon child actually means, I decided it was time I find out how it defines me. So, like any other credible academic, I googled “chinese zodiac dragon” and found  www.chinesezodiac.com at the top of a long list of results. Below, I seek to understand how my life has been subliminally shaped by the most superior Chinese Zodiac sign in the world (I don’t actually believe it’s superior, but it’s up there)!

Personality

Website: Occupying the 5th position in the Chinese Zodiac, the Dragon is the mightiest of the signs. Dragons symbolize such character traits as dominance and ambition. Dragons prefer to live by their own rules and if left on their own, are usually successful. They’re driven, unafraid of challenges, and willing to take risks. They’re passionate in all they do and they do things in grand fashion. Unfortunately, this passion and enthusiasm can leave Dragons feeling exhausted and interestingly, unfulfilled.

While Dragons frequently help others, rarely will they ask for help. Others are attracted to Dragons, especially their colorful personalities, but deep down, Dragons prefer to be alone. Perhaps that is because they’re most successful when working alone. Their preference to be alone can come across as arrogance or conceitedness, but these qualities aren’t applicable. Dragons have tempers that can flare fast!

Me: Okay, I consider myself “mighty” but I’m neither dominant nor that ambitious. I have dreams, but I’ll find excuses for why I’m not carrying them out. I do like to live by my own rules, but I always credited that to my being an only child. As for challenges and risks, I’ll take them if I’m feeling spontaneous, but I won’t break the law (not big ones). Passion and enthusiasm only surface for certain occasions, like my birthday or a new love interest. But, as the website profoundly indicates, I end up exhausted, unfulfilled and oh so regretful.

As my friend Jett suggested I put on my OkCupid profile (did I really just publicize this?!), I am generous and compassionate. I do tend to help others, like give up my seat on the subway and donate a dollar here or there, but nothing of “grand fashion.” I don’t disagree that I have a colorful personality, which I take to mean happy, upbeat, fun, etc, but I also have a dark side. I will lash out if you so urge me.

Health

Website: Considering their hard-working nature, Dragons are healthy overall. They do get stressed and suffer from periodic tension/headaches, likely because they take so many risks. Dragons could benefit from incorporating mild activity into their lives. Yoga or walking would be good as these activities can work both their minds and their bodies.

Me: I had a horrible headache yesterday! Must be all the risks that I’ve been taking–quitting my full-time job (for part-time), eating sour noodles (gone bad), and buying Christmas presents at the very last minute. It is on my New Years Resolutions to exercise more. In fact, my parents and I did a good deal of walking/shopping after dinner today. I’m off to a good start!

Career

Website: Dragons prefer leading to being led. Jobs that allow them to express their creativity are good choices. Some good careers include: inventor, manager, computer analyst, lawyer, engineer, architect, broker, and sales person.

Me: It’s true. I hate being led; that 9-6 job was awful. I prefer teaching, where I make all the rules. “Teaching” isn’t on the list of “some good careers include,” but the website can’t be right about everything. I am definitely not cut out to being a computer analyst (I can’t analyze anything that deeply), a manager (I’m too nice, people would walk all over me and I’d be left without any managing power), and certainly not a lawyer (I don’t do public speaking). I am a good sales person though.

Relationships

Website: Dragons will give into love, but won’t give up their independence. Because they have quick, sometimes vengeful tempers, their partners need to be tough-skinned. Dragons enjoy others who are intriguing, and when they find the right partners, they’ll usually commit to that person for life.

Me: Oy, I give up my independence too easily. I fall into “love traps” that lead me to become vengeful if the other person does not live up to my standards. I will, however, commit to whoever it is I’m with–maybe too much so that it drives men boys away. I read on Thought Catalog that guys are attracted to flakes. I guess I’ll add “be flaky” to my list of “Resolutions.”

Dragons and the 5 elements

Website:

Metal Dragons – Years 1940 and 2000

Metal strengthens this already strong sign. Metal Dragons are more determined and they’ll fight for what they believe in. They enjoy the company of those who feel mighty enough to challenge their beliefs. They’re true leaders and usually find plenty of others willing to follow.

Water Dragons – Years 1952 and 2012

Water calms the Dragon’s fire. Water Dragons are able to see things from other points of view. They don’t have the need to always be right. Their decisions, if well-researched, are usually better since they allow other’s to become involved.

Wood Dragons – 1904 and 1964

Wood Dragons also are willing to entertain the opinions of others. Their artistic side is strong, and Wood Dragons enjoy being creative and innovative. They get along with others, but will always be the dominating force.

Fire Dragons – 1916 and 1976

A Fire Dragon’s emotions can flare instantly. Fire Dragons put themselves on pedestals, and because they react quickly and recklessly, they sometimes make wrong decisions. Fire Dragons need to slow down and keep their tempers in check as that’s when they’re best.

Earth Dragons – Years 1928 and 1988 (this is me!)

More rooted in the ground, Earth Dragons make better decisions because they act more rationally. Earth Dragons are level-headed and able to control their behaviors. They’re more supportive of others, but they prefer being admired by others.

Me: Ahh! “More rooted in the ground” — “Grounding My Roots” This website is genius! Although, I can’t say I make rational decisions because I’m not level-headed and have trouble controlling my behavior in love, life and at the dinner-table. I will support you, friend, but I also want you to admire me because I’m just that awesome.

Well, that explains it. I’ve got my red underwear on (for good luck–it’s tradition!) ready to rock n’ roll into the next 364 days.

Rambling About Love, or Lack Thereof

Tonight I went out for the first time in a while. It’s only 11:45 p.m. Beijing time, so you can imagine how unexciting it was, but it was a momentary high I’ve been lacking lately.

On the cab ride home, my friend and her boyfriend were “discussing” marriage in their drunken state. My friend, who I’m going to call Lucille, is my age–23. Lucille kept asking her boyfriend, 26, when he would take her hand in marriage so that she could finally stay out all night, or spend the night with him. I asked why she couldn’t move out of her parents’ house before marriage, but she only shook her head, “no.” I guess as modern as China is getting, many aspects of tradition are still intact–the role of women being among them.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve only been in a serious relationship once, and it ended horribly–HORRIBLY–the idea of marriage is as shocking to me as Brad Pitt leaving Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie (is that that shocking, actually? Angelina is prettier.). No, I think the idea of marriage is shocking because I’m still 23 and have so many things to accomplish before settling down with someone. There is no doubt that marriage works out for some people my age and I’m genuinely happy that soul mates exist, I just hope my soul mate doesn’t show up till I have more checked off my to-do list.

This past summer, a family friend suggested that I get married soon. I’m closing in on my mid-20’s but come on! I’ve barely grown out of the training bra of childhood! I’m still new to life and its complicated facets that bring heartache, love and disappointment, feelings that I’ve only just begun to experience! Heartache stinks and disappointment hurts, but I’m eager to know what it’s like so I can learn how to avoid it in the future. As for love, I’m still waiting for the next round.

I’m in no hurry, although being around Lucille and her boyfriend makes me wonder when my own loverboy is going to come around. Maybe springtime, the season for love. Or is that summertime? I can’t remember. Maybe it’s reversed in China, like the clock. Maybe love blooms in the wintertime in the east. Oooo that’s soon!

But like I said, there’s no hurry. For now, I’m patiently waiting, unexpecting (because things tend to happen when you’re least expecting. Funny and frustrating how life works.). Anyway, I’m going to sleep on these thoughts and leave you with a classic which I found quite fitting:

 

 

 

 


Mysteries Solved!

There’s a Chinese tradition behind all that free lettuce  (mentioned in yesterday’s post) that I learned today; when China was still very poor, lettuce was one of the few available vegetables people could eat during the wintertime. Now any kind of vegetable can grow, or be chemically produced, in the cold season but for older generations eating lettuce has become a wintertime tradition, for that’s all they had. Although, rather than calling it a tradition, I would say it is more of a habit since being restricted to lettuce wasn’t exactly by choice (though not all traditions are practiced by choice either…). Anyhow, now it makes sense to me why my neighborhood is handing out free lettuce–overproduction and contractors are just convenient excuses for keeping this tradition alive. Whatever, I’ll take it!

Another mystery I solved today was how window washers (aka Chinese Spidermen) do their job: they sit on wooden planks wound tightly to a rope which a lady at the bottom holds onto (for unknown reasons) from which they slowly descend! Brave souls; I commend you!

Something that still remains a mystery to me, however, is why there are so many old school thermoses parked by the bikes at this university, though they do add a nice touch of color to the campus.

I thought these things were “vintage” now. I’ve seen mini versions of them at stores sold along Maoist propaganda that has become part of the pop culture. It’s so hipster–Chinese style. I should stock up while I’m still young and relatively cool.

Two mysteries solved! Infinitely more to go.