Thursday, December 25, 2008
**Introducing Ahmad, my Cairo host and spinner of more freemasonry inspired conspiracy theories than you can imagine...
**Morning runs by the Pyramids, with the tunes of Moshav and others along for the ride...
**Nubian Folk Music, or as best as I can describe the most fantastic aural experience of my life in words...
**Mummy over-kill, or what to do when Egyptology gets overwhelming...
**Shabbat in Cairo and finding a way to keep a light going through the days and evenings of Hanukah...
My journey in Cairo hardly begins in Beijing. Nevertheless, lifting weights alongside a 300-pound Egyptian named 'Big Rock' [DaShi] did leave an impression that perhaps can best serve as a bridge between the Beijing-based origins of this blog and its current sphinxian rebirth along the banks of the Nile.
DaShi's name was no accident. But the first thing that captured my attention was not his size but the fact that we used Chinese to communicate. Dashi's real name was Mohammed Basry, and the real reason he was learning Chinese may have been, as he told me, to allow him to serve as a specialized tour guide back in Cairo--or the reason may have been that he was still serving as the military intelligence officer he admitted to serving as in the recent past. As part of his military service, Dashi had attained near fluency in Hebrew. But we did not speak in Hebrew, nor in English, and of course the Arabic that I was two months from begining to study was hardly an option. Instead Chinese served as the tools for an improbable friendship that began over barbells and spot-requests and continued...where I cannot say.
--This summer I could not have realized where our relationship kindled over learning Chinese would take us. A short time after we met, Mohammed moved away and I was left alone with my curioisity, wondering what the future had in store for a skinny Jewish kid sporting a purple Nikayon Zion t-shirt and the growing number of Chinese speakers in the Arab world. Six months later I finally have a chance to see where that path continues, as I have arrived in the land of the Nile to engage Egypt's Chinese speakers. What I find, within and especially beyond the classrooms of modern Egypt, will hopefully appear in future posts.
Monday, August 4, 2008
Nelly, Ride Wit Me.
Love, sex and marriage were the subject matter this week (i.e. 7/7/08) in Chinese class. And thanks to a coterie of flirtatious French girls that had just arrived on campus for a brief stay, the in-class material quickly became an extra-curricular affair. The flipside of discussing Chinese relationships in class and dodging French entanglements on the side was that there was little time left to get into any trouble with any of the American girls on my program. Note I said little and not none, though in my defense none of what follows quite passes the level of fun and games into murkier territory.
The French girls pounced immediately. I was waiting to enter the cafeteria one day when a few of them started garbling something in a mix of French with the occasional Chinese pronoun thrown in for good measure. As I would soon discover, they spoke little to no English and none of them could carry a conversation past “ni hao” in Chinese. What that says about the arrogance or ineptitude of the French educational institutions I will leave for you to surmise. But I will leave you with the thought that your average urban Chinese student’s much maligned English skills are far superior to anything that emerged from the mouths of my posse of female French admirers.
Nothing would have come of their interest and my curiosity on that fateful lunch-line were it not for the fortuitous arrival of a Mexican classmate, whose French skills quickly deciphered their request for me to join them later in the day for a longer conversation. A few nights later that conversation eventually became a reality, though considering I only spoke in Chinese and they stuck with French, I am not sure how much was communicated over the course of our forty minute back and forth. We did reach a conclusion of sorts, agreeing to meet up on Saturday night to together hit up the Beijing night scene.
Back in the classroom, we put aside our textbooks at the end of the week for an in-class discussion with several Chinese college students on the complexities of the local dating scene. Chinese, or perhaps university, law prohibits college student from tying the knot before they graduate. Although I am curious how prevalent birth control and abortion are on campuses, we never quite hit the steamier material. Instead they shared parental pressures to marry and produce that one precious grandchild (if both parents are single children, however, by law they are actually permitted two kids), the ideal physical attributes they look for in the opposite sex, and most memorably, the order and purpose of the first, second and subsequent dates. Their collective wisdom is that depending on the budget, food or a walk in the park is de rigueur first date material, if you are a guy you aim for the movie date as soon as possible (with little regard to whatever is playing on screen), and no matter what, you wait until there’s a spark before hitting up KTV (karaoke) with your special friend. When the subject turned to what American guys look for in a girl, none of my classmates would venture an opinion so I shared that it all starts with the smile and the sparkle in their eyes—though you won’t necessarily notice those characteristics highlighted on the cover of most guy mags back in the USA.
I had my own run with a remarkable smile earlier in the week. Those wiser than myself have advised that one should stay away from dangers, especially really attractive ones with blond hair and a really pretty smile. I would not be in ZhongGuo (China) if I had taken such advice completely to heart. And I would certainly not have found myself asking the prettiest girl on our program for the use of her cellphone charger at the start of the week. It hardly needs to be said that my stated reason for knocking on her door—the loss of my own charger—was a transparent excuse to come by her room each night for the rest of the program. Our friendship has quickly moved past the point of sharing a single cellphone charger, though nothing has come to pass that I had not expected or that would put be in problematic territory on the Jewishy side of things. So why flirt with the unknown? Mostly because friendship is too valuable to completely set aside for a summer, even if it is restricted for want of language abilities. And also because my friend has a delightful smile, and after a long and blustery day of pursuing fluid, black Chinese characters across the expanse of my mind, there is a lot to be said for exchanging a cellphone charger with a beautiful blond with a delightful smile.
As to my night out with the French? The short version is that it was inspired by a friend in Mexico and concluded with thoughts of a friend up in Wash Heights. For the rest of the story, contact me directly, eh?
Thursday, July 24, 2008
So the flirtatious French girls, Egyptian weight lifter and a lowdown on how Beijing's environment really is (pardon the interruption, but in the crush of commentary on this issue, do you think any of the writers have actually gone for a run in Beijing? No, I thought not!) will have to wait for the mass of posting planned for this weekend. For now, thoughts on today...
It has been four days since Beijing put its gargantuan net of policies into effect to clean up the air quality and reduce the pollution level before the Games. As my luck would have it, I did not have a chance to run outside earlier this week, when fortune smiled on the organizers and the sky was as blue as the lakes of faraway Tibet. Today I did go for a afternoon run, and sure enough the sky was so gray, that it not only smelled like I was running through old furniture but at times felt like it.
As bad as the air was, that was not what got my attention. Heck the air is that gray pretty much every other day in the capital. The headliner this afternoon was that my corner of Beijing has been transformed: plant sculptures are up everywhere, there are more flowers on the sidewalks than are being sold in Jerusalem on a given erev shabbat (Friday afternoon), and of course, Huanhuan and his friends (the Beijing Games mascots, duh!) are everywhere. On my run through the local park, every lamppost had been bedecked with Olympic flags. Considering this is urban China, where public electric lighting is a national obsession, the only thing that I have witnessed that compares to the fluttering Olympic flags came a few years back when Central Park covered itself in orange banners. As I began my run, a final Olympic banner was being raised in the park. The worker had a pair of hooked claws attached to his shoes that enabled him to hang off the side of the lamppost Spiderman style while he affixed the fabric with Sukka style plastic ties to the metal pole.
But the real attention grabber came at the beginning of my run when I passed the gymnasium that will host women's volleyball in three weeks time. Tomorrow is the first chance in months--and more importantly, the final chance--for locals to purchase tickets to the Games. They go on sale at a variety of city locations at 8am and, as you would expect in a city of 18million plus people, the line as of 6:00 pm is already down the block. I asked a Chinese friend why the people had no sleeping bags or the like. She looked at me incredulously and said "sleep? they wont sleep! If they sleep they will be lucky to find themselves within a few blocks of where they put their head down the night before let alone a chance to get tickets. It is going to be an all night affair."
Saturday, July 19, 2008
Never trust the man who tells you all his troubles but keeps from you all his joys. Yiddishism
Mondays are always frantic, with the first of the daily Chinese listening and writing quizzes that make every evening a blizzard of scribbling and endless memorization. So my run this morning was necessary circumscribed as well.
The highlight was certainly returning to the large park I had visited the day before. I made sure to enter by a different gate and leave by the same one I had used yesterday. While exiting at the latter gate, I stopped to purchase and hand a park ticket over to the guards. When I turned down the street and began heading for home, the guards raised a hue and cry, confused as to why I had just paid for an entrance ticket and was now leaving! My explanation that I was the same young guy without cash from the previous morning who had promised he would return to pay the ticket fee only made them more surprised that I had actually made good on my word. The small price of two yuan was nothing compared to the chance to leave the guards stunned at my behavior as I ran off down the road.
A day earlier I had read in my nicked up maroon paperback version of Bamidbar about the saga of the twelve spies of Israel, the infamous dozen whom Moses reluctantly sends to scout out the holy land while the twelve tribes are traveling through the desert. Putting aside the tragic consequence of their journey, I was inspired on Sunday morning to strike out into a new corner of Beijing. With only a watch to assist me in finding my way—useful in timing how long the legs of a route take, allowing me to gauge where I might be on the return run— I headed to the south and then pushed westward until I arrived at one of Beijing’s largest parks: Yu Yuan Tan (YYT).
If you have ever heard me discuss anything tangentially related to running, visiting or living in Beijing, you already understand how the capital’s parks are the best thing the city has going for it. YYT raises the ante a few notches however, because the huge lake that dominates the park manages to pack in some of the best water activities I have yet experienced in China. Look for a later post to detail my chance to enjoy Da Shui Qiao, a fantastically weird version of bubble-boy-esque bumper boating I first partook of a year ago in the western capital city of Xinning. This Sunday run was marked by a more traditional encounter with the water, though one none the less memorable.
There was so much to see around the lakeside of YYT that after completing one loop in a half an hour of hard running I revved up for one more. Fate, in this case clothed er actually unclothed in a pack of smiling laobeijingren, intervened. Two dozen elderly locals were towel maneuvering by the rocky banks of the lakes, with a few of their comrades still basking in the green water. The heat got the better of my urge to keep running and before I knew it, my shoes, watch, shorts and shades were hidden away under a branch while I dove into the water. Within minutes I was working on my first ‘huzi,/feiji/ji’ strokes in China. Yet while my arms and legs monkey/airplane/squeezed my body through the water, my mind was swimming through the summer lakes of Minnesota. The water may have been a bit greener than any of the ten thousand plus lakes of my home state, but the chance to connect to summers of the past in one of Beijing’s most idyllic corners made the swim as memorable a dip in a lake as I have ever had.
All my life I have wavered between living the life of Smalls and aspiring to the grandeur of Benny. Living the life of Smalls is about identifying with The Sandlot’s scrawny outsider with the funny hat, whose relationship with his peers is as out of sync as his communication with his parents. Smalls is the kid whose very limitations make him hopelessly fated to be the narrator, still reporting from the sidelines when all his childhood friends have matured and disappeared into their own lives. Aspiring for the glow of Benny is about believing I have it in me to be that incomparable speedster, the winner with the magic smile who is known for coming through in the toughest moments.
Benny and Smalls were on my mind on Friday, when my red haired Mexican friend joined me for a run after we finished our weekly exams. Two blocks from the nearby park her legs locked up and despite my insistence that I accompany her back to campus, my friend was equally adamant I continue going. So I did and the result was a Benny experience, an extended moment of complete release when every ounce of physical and emotional strength is exuberantly employed to the point that in that moment you know you are giving everything. Everything. Even if you cannot remember the last time you saw Benny run for his life from the Beast in the climactic finale of The Sandlot, you still should have a good idea of what I am describing. And not because you may have seen it in movies or elsewhere in the media. You should know because unless you have allowed your Benny moments to slip by one by one, you have surely experienced a few yourselves.
Running can be a lonely business. The bemused looks from the morning masses may inspire me to run faster. But they do not share my thoughts nor otherwise detract from the solitary path I tread each morning. Only someone by my side, matching me stride for stride, can provide such companionship. Finding that someone, however, is no easy task.
For starters, I am not the best of running companions myself. Running for the sake of running bores me. If I am not at the point of exhaustion, unless every stride leaves nothing in reserve, then the idea of running in circles for forty minutes strikes me as inane at best and demeaning at worst. The problem is complicated by the fact that frequent runs have set my ideal pace past the point of the casual runner but nowhere near the speed of anyone with real experience. Though worrying about the pace is really besides the point: like most things, the toughest part of finding a running companion is discovering someone motivated and willing to match their interest to the reality of lacing up sneaks and hitting the road at seven am each morning.
Perhaps my expectations are too high. If so, there is one person responsible—and I will not take the honest yet simple route on this one and look in the mirror. Last summer an incomparable classmate woke me each morning with a soft knock on the door. As I put aside my tefillin, he finished brushing his teeth and together we would set out to explore the winding roads and musty canals of Suzhou. Perhaps it helped that my classmate was an all-everything track star back at his small college in Pennsylvania. Fortunately for yours truly, my classmate’s blistering pace was exceeded only by the joy and dedication he displayed for our daily runs.
No one this summer can possibly compare to my friend of yesteryear. The best replacements I have found are any of several long legged female classmates who ever so rarely join me on runs in the park. For your average local, a girl zipping by in tight running shorts and a sports bra is far stranger than a half naked guy with a watermelon on his head. My female fellow runners soak up the stares, allowing me to run in relative anonymity. Perhaps that anonymity is what having someone by your is partly about—ironic in a way, that a benefit of not being alone is the ability to melt into the crowd. I imagine that the Olympics will rob Beijingers of their naïve fascination with spandex clad girls, though I am sure by then someone or something else will emerge to alleviate the solitary nature of running in the capital.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
The aim of every artist is to arrest life by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again. William Faulkner
Every time I run in the nearby park, a new activity practiced by China’s intrepid senior citizens catches my eye and leaves me stunned. But not since discovering how fond old ladies are of swirling twin sabers to the tunes of Mozart and Beethoven have I been as amazed by the sight that greeted me this morning. At the entrance to the park, an enormous crowd of old folks were thrusting their hands in the air and shaking their bodies to everybody’s favorite late nineties anthem: Macarena.
Discovering that Macarena has been added to a list of park activities so vast that nearly any musical genre, style of dance, form of combat or callisthenic—in short, anything that could make the show America’s Got Talent is likely being performed by senior citizens in a park somewhere in China— is on the list only confirmed a remark I had made to a friend over Friday night dinner at Chabad. My friend had marveled at the presence of a kosher restaurant in Beijing, commenting that it was so out of place. I replied that a kosher restaurant was actually perfectly suited to the random and wild tableau that is China’s capital city. And that character is not simply a modern development. Before earning the sobriquet “Forbidden City,” imperial China’s capital cities were often among the most international metropolises in the world. And as any globe trotting traveler knows, the 12th century rabbi Benjamin Tudela was not the first nor will today’s young Israeli backpackers be the last wandering Jews with a knack for finding their ways to all four corners of the globe.
The shirtless foreigner running at high speed through the parks of western Beijing is sort of like that kosher restaurant. For all the odd stares I get, when I am running in the park I am as much a part of the local character as the married couples having their photos taken by the shore and the old ladies playing hacky-sack besides the silent qigong master. The last half century, when China was largely cut off from the world and the Jewish community was increasingly repositioned in Israel rather than across the world, suggest that a Jewish presence in China is a misnomer. I am convinced that it is actually a suggestion of untapped potential, of what two ancient civilizations and dynamic modern communities have to communicate to each other. It is difficult to say when or if I will have the opportunity to further that potential myself. But from the welcoming nods I now receive from familiar faces in the local park, I know that the steps necessary to forge such a relationship come from recognizing that my own activity in China is only as unsuited to the local environment as I imagine it to be.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us most….When we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. Marianne Williamson
Learning a foreign language, especially one as challenging as Chinese, is a tricky thing. The key trick is confidence, with a generous serving of perseverance for those times when your mind cries out in protest against reliving the early days of childhood. As an aside, there is nothing like maintaining a strict language pledge to empathize with screaming babies who, like yourself, are hamstrung in the verbal game.
China may have bestowed me with many things but topping the list has to be confidence. Despite running through a laundry list of doubts each time I stumble over an old grammar pattern, the confidence I have in China is so pervasive that it colors the dull grays and reds that otherwise dominate the Chinese palette. My travels in Western China—dancing in Qinghai, getting “arrested” in Tibet, motorcycling to distant villages in Yunnan, volunteering in Sichuan— are when the seed was first planted. But it is the warm reception I have had from regulars folks throughout my western travels and back on the Eastern seaboard that makes finding my way in (what was and in many ways still is) an alien culture such a confidence boosting (and endlessly enthralling) experience. By warm reception, mind you, I don’t mean Israel’s unparalleled hospitality. We are talking China, so we are talking a huge range of reactions, from staring at my watermelon, asking for a photo together, taking my passable accent as suggesting my Chinese is far better than reality suggests, and more than anything, displaying a depth of positive energy and intrepid kindness that gets overlooked in panoramic discussions of China’s billions.
Which brings me to what may or may not be the first and last comment on the strictly academic component of my summer. Classes start in earnest tomorrow (June 16) and I have been placed in the highest level. It is not so much a comment on my Chinese mastery as a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of my classmates have only studied the language for one or two years. Having completed the second tier course now being offered in my previous stint in Beijing in January, and with not enough advanced students this summer to have multiple higher level classes, my “honor” at making it to the top of the hill is simply a technicality.
Technicalities aside, placing near the top of my program marks a dramatic change of pace for someone who has grown well used to struggling fruitlessly near the bottom of every language class I have been in since biblical Hebrew lessons in first grade. At every step of my Chinese studying career I have struggled with the reality that despite committing twice the amount of time into my studies as most students, my progress in the language has been stilted at best. Now I am viewed by teachers and classmates alike as someone with the sort of Chinese skills others aspire towards. Even while recognizing the untold distance I am from any real degree of fluency, there is something to having much expected of oneself that, confidence-wise, promises to benefit my progress this summer in and of itself.
Monday, June 30, 2008
You and your friend are walking down two sides of the same street. Suddenly you are both overcome by hoods. They rough you up. But your friend gets it worse—he is killed. Who wants to hear your story when you got off so easy? Why do you deserve to talk? Moshe Pick
I did not agree with the final words (excerpted above) of Mr. Pick’s public remarks at Shabbat lunch. But everything he said until that point had seized my attention to the point I was not going to vocally disagree. Mr. Pick was in China for the first time in sixty years. He had returned with his wife, both of whom had said farewell to the Far East from the deck of a steamer departing Shanghai after World War II. Like thousands of European Jews, the Picks escaped the Holocaust through the selfless actions of the otherwise anonymous Chinese counsel in Vienna. After Kristanacht, the Chinese counsel was one of the only diplomats in Greater Germany willing to provide Jews with the paperwork necessary to escape the county. The Western countries told the desperate immigrants that at best only those with blue collar skills, like plumbers, electricians and mechanics, would be granted immigrant visas. As Mr. Pick recalled, “there was not a Jewish plumber or mechanic in all of Vienna.” With the West locked, the only open door lay to the east—an understatement if there ever was one, as the recently bar mitzved Moshe and his family fled to Far East, to the distant port of Shanghai.
Like the rest of the newly arrived Jewish immigrants, Moshe and his family had little idea that the land they had fled to was engulfed in a devastating series of wars, with Nationalists fighting Communists as both sides alike faced off against encroaching fascist Japanese armies. To the extent that anything like a sovereign Chinese government could be identified during these years, it had little claim to Shanghai. For much of the first half of the twentieth century, Shanghai was an international enclave, jointly ruled by a consortium of European powers. Or as Mr. Pick described it, Shanghai was the only place in the world that in the midst of WWII, the Union Jack and the Nazi flag stood side by side.
Mr. Pick’s recollection was fascinating but even more remarkable was what he revealed to me and Richard over Shabbat lunch when we approached him and his wife. After he shared more details about his teenage years in the bustling wartime international port, we asked the two old China veterans what they thought of the return of a Jewish presence—at present, largely limited to Chabad, businessmen, students and travelers—to China. Mrs. Pick insisted that the only eastern locale she held out hope for was Israel but Mr. Pick was somewhat more generous, granting that in ways his wartime colleagues might never have appreciated, they helped pull back the lid on what can still only be called a tepid field of Sino-Judaic relations and understanding. His words reminded me of what China’s leading scholar on Israel and the Jewish community had replied to my asking him a year before in Washington D.C. why he first became interested in the Jewish people. His answer was classic: Growing up in wartime Shanghai, he had served as the shabbos goy for his neighbors, and the lights he lit for them as a child haunted his imagination years later as an accomplished academic.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Perhaps you have heard about the devastating floods that have swept through southern China, killing dozens and setting China’s industrial heartland billions in the red. Perhaps you are more familiar with the similar floods that have left a path of destruction in the American heartland. Neither storm is anywhere near my present whereabouts in western Beijing. But on Friday I had my own little Noah’s Ark adventure. And when the water was past my knees and rising, there were moments when Beijing’s vastness was washed away and I could just as easily have been in any little town in Iowa or Guangdong province.
The deluge began when my friend Richard showed up unexpectedly at my dorm two hours before dusk. Earlier in the week we had thrown around the idea of my hosting him for Shabbat (a punishable offense according to Chinese law but hey, doesn’t God look after His children on the seventh day?) as an alternative to spending the weekend at the local Chabad. Richard and I had met two years ago in Washington D.C. when we worked together at the Congressional advisory body on Chinese politics. Sometime between 2006 and this past fall, Richard went from asking me whether the watermelon on my head had any special ritual significance to quizzing me on the minutiae of obscure Shabbat law that he now observes as a ba’al teshuva. Perhaps I see myself as somewhat responsible for his acceptance of halakhic observance. Or maybe the fact that Richard’s change of heart means the number of reliably religious young Jews with an insatiable China curiosity has doubled is the better explanation for why his presence unerringly compels me to best represent what an authentic Jewish lifestyle can embody. Whatever the reason, when Richard showed up on my dorm-room doorstep, I immediately decided that my facility could not provide the Shabbat atmosphere he required and hence we would together go to Chabad.
We had a good two hours before Shabbat began and little reason to be concerned we would not make the half an hour trip across town. And then it started raining. And as this ain’t Spain, the rain was not limited to the plains. We're talking sheets of water, pouring from the high heavens, slooshing down streets, forcing thousands to leave the bicycles by the curb and scramble for higher ground. Richard and I wound up standing at opposite ends of a major intersection, our hands outstretched in vain for the cabs that refused to emerge from the deluge. We eventually gave up and the rest of the story involves a random bus ride, a fascinating incident when I asked a bus-ticket lady for directions and half the people on the standing room only rush hour bus chimed in with vocal suggestions, and finally me throwing myself into the passenger seat of a cab and insisting he accept the fare upfront and take us as close to the Chabad House as time allowed.
The ascent, they say, is always more rewarding than the summit. In this case, both will be difficult to forget. With my hair still plastered from the rain soaked journey, Richard and I entered the Kosher restaurant where Chabad of Beijing hosts their Shabbat meals. I quickly spotted and waved at the familiar faces—but there was one who nothing but a hug and whoop of joy could do justice to my surprise at seeing her, for the first time in more than a year, at Chabad of all places. Last summer I had tried in vain to persuade a Jewish classmate of mine to accompany me to Chabad of Shanghai. She had expressed interest but each weekend I went other plans would intervene. Now she was standing across the room, singing along to Shalom Aleichem, joining with me and the rest of the Beijing Jewish community to welcome Shabbat as guests of Chabad. Sitting at dinner, with friends from the past two summers joining me for a Shabbat that in the past had been confined to my imagination, it was remarkable. And considering what transpired over the rest of the Shabbat, only a sign of what lay in store.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Tell me, Mr. Anderson, what good is a phone call… if you're unable to speak? Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)
Most dreams of the Middle Kingdom involve the country’s countless billions. Usually the vision is of endless consumers, ready to be sold on Western beliefs or gadgets. I came with the idea that there were a billion untold stories locked away behind the bamboo curtain. But I also was convinced that as I slowly unraveled some of those tales, the country would be a primordial etch a sketch where each day I could imagine myself anew. The latter conviction is perhaps the most accurate description of what coming to China as an Orthodox Jew is like (though the idea is pretty much true for any foreigner in China, or for that matter anywhere overseas). The possibility that China provides to effortlessly present oneself differently is worth dwelling on at greater length. At present I only introduce it because it is in some way really the larger story within which a small purchase I made on Thursday has a small role.
The purchase was a cellphone. And the cellphone was another step away from the ability to slip away into the anonymity of China. I had avoided obtaining a cellphone last summer. And with the exception of one memorable Saturday night when I somehow met up with three friends in the midst of Nanjing Lue, Shanghai’s busiest pedestrian mall, it never seemed a necessity. Without a cellphone, life in China sometimes had the magic of a run where no one can pressure you, no one can direct your path, you and you alone are responsible for the steps and the direction that you take. With a cellphone the other China—corporate, grasping and pressured—reasserts its way into my daily life. Perhaps the local phone’s saving grace is that it provides me with an alarm clock, ensuring that that other world still preserved in early morning runs is still available for the taking.
My workout for baseball season was running for my life on the football field. Bo Jackson
Two summer ago I worked on Capitol Hill for a legislative arm that advises Congress on Chinese-American relations. Nearly a quarter of the twenty person staff were Minnesotans. Last summer I studied Chinese near Shanghai, in a city named Suzhou, with a State Department Scholarship program. Nearly a quarter of the twenty participants were Jewish. So I was not surprised when I discovered that the program I am now studying with in Beijing has a disproportionate number of Minnesotans and Jews. I am the only one on the program contributing to both spreads. Not sure if it is comforting or weird how the two identities seem to be shadowing me everywhere I go with this China business.
Before going to sleep on Wednesday night, I had spread the word amongst the new arrivals that I would be running every morning before classes and anyone and everyone with a hankering to see Beijing before 7:00 am was invited to join me. The mandatory language pledge on our program would not begin until Monday but already something must have been lost in translation since the next morning only one jet-lagged shirtless dude was waiting by the campus gate. After waving aside my warning that the park we planned to tackle might require him to be fully clothed, we set off. When my warning was born out, the park was out of bounds so yours truly got his first crack at the smoggy sidewalks of Beijing. Initial verdict: Bad and worse. Bad because the air still has the clogging sense that makes me feel like my lungs are drowning and worse because if this is supposed to be the new and improved Olympic ready air quality, well, I suggest they run the marathon on treadmills.
The good news was that my lungs were the only things heaving with every step. Since returning to Beijing from Sichuan on Friday, my calves had been terribly weak from the punishing decent of Emei Shan. Until the end of Shavout I literally could not descend steps without clutching a handrail and moving at a pace that would inflame nursing home residents. On my first run on Wednesday in the local park, every downward step felt like a hammer clanging on my calf muscles. The feeling was cool only to the extent that lifting my foot—that is, striding forward—felt comparatively effortless. But today the pain in my legs was only a memory. Apparently my calves had decided that their painful protest was not going anywhere and so they had faded into the background allowing my polluted lungs to take their place at the pinnacle of personal pain.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
California sunlight, sweet Calcutta rain/Honolulu starbright—the song remains the same. Led Zeppelin
The path remained the same. But nearly everything else had changed in Zizhuyuan Park. Gone were the ice skaters and the toboggans. Absent were the laobeijingren decked out in every conceivable form of protection from the frost of January in Beijing. And hidden away in my mind was the lone boy who I had once seen with hockey stick in hand, skating across the lake as if he were on any frozen pond back in Minnesota. Nothing was the same, in fact, but the thrill of running amidst crowds of old timers performing every form of callisthenic—loosely defined—one can and cannot imagine. It was great to be back, great to return to the same park whose every curve I had grown close to over this past January, and great to now run without several layers of clothing weighing me down.
In other news the sixty or so classmates sharing my digs arrived tonight (June 11, 2008). In a few days time a language pledge will come into effect and we will be prohibited from speaking English. So the next few days are in some ways the best and only chance to establish friendships built on conversations that are not limited to the size of one’s Chinese vocabulary. I have immediately been pegged as a lao xuesheng, a veteran student, courtesy of my previous experience on the program for thirty days in January. Apparently that means I am supposed to know everything about Beijing. While I certainly have a few tips I can share with my new classmates, most of whom have just arrived in China for the first time, my advisory capacity is mostly a helpful means of meeting a wide range of classmates. Most attend various universities in Texas and a large contingent hail from Yale. Among the more memorable folks are two Mexican redhead sisters who run their own flower shop out of Austin Texas; an Indian guy who attends college in Minnesota and previously lived most of his life in Dubai (the most materialistic place in the world, he insists); and a Haverford student of Chinese descent who confided to me, after we shared our travel stories in Tiger Leaping Gorge in China’s Yunnan Province, that I really looked Chinese. I am going to attribute the remark to the comparative expertise I have within a sea of fresh off the boat Americans. Minus my The Last Samurai look courtesy of the ponytail I no longer have, I am not convinced that his remarks carries much weight in the physical resemblance department.
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Sit still, my daughter, until you know how the matter will fall; for the man will not rest, until he has finished the thing this day. Naomi, Book of Ruth 3:18.
When I read Naomi’s words to her daughter-in-law Ruth during a long night of learning at Chabad of Beijing, it was impossible to miss the implications to my own upcoming experience. In the Book of Ruth, the titular character’s mother-in-law is generally placed to the side as commentators draw our attention to Ruth and her descendent David. I am convinced such readings miss the point of the text, drawing a bead on the daughter-in-law when it is Naomi who is actually the ancestor of the royal Davidic line that the book is designed to highlight. I suggest you reread the Book of Ruth for further details (and contact me if you dis/agree). My concern rests with another Naomi, with the lady who besides myself and my parents is most responsible for my returning to Beijing to start a two month Chinese language study program the day after the Jewish holiday of Shavout.
It is the comments that seem to speak directly to your thoughts, bypassing the eyes and ears, that are the best sign of authentic communication. One of the Chinese language teachers on the wintertime program I was attending this past January in Beijing caught me with such a comment when she asked me to provide her with an English name. Next to crafting the windows to a newborn’s soul (science aside, I am convinced everyone’s eyes are a personal gift from God), the name parents bestow on their child is certainly the most fundamental of gifts. And so choosing the right name for my teacher was not the simplest of tasks.
Or at least it would not have been if not for the sequence of events that occurred over the following week. On Sunday the girl I had been pining for from across the world splintered my heart when she coolly informed me time had passed me by and we had best leave aside the future and forget about the past. A few days later I heard that an incredible friend had fallen to his death while hiking near Petra. The two events combined to shatter my confidence in the pervasive ability to communicate, no matter the distance in time or place. My friend was torn from my life the second he lost his own. And while nowhere near as grim, the wound from earlier in the week seemed to be of equal permanence.
It was in this cloud of despair that I returned to my teacher at the end of the week, having seemingly failed in my task to find her a suitable English name. I am not sure to this day if she quite understood why my mind was elsewhere. But she understood that I needed to work some things out that went far beyond grammar points and new vocabulary. We spoke for nearly two hours that night, about what matters, and why, and what to do when some of the answers you thought you had finally figured out to the first two questions are destroyed before your eyes.
I left our conversation with at least one answer. There was only one name that seemed appropriate for my teacher, only one name that could capture the complex questions she had allowed me to confront while also reminding me that my path forward remained clear. So the next time we met, I named her Naomi. We spoke briefly about the character and her story from the Book of Ruth, none of which she had any familiarity with. I described how Naomi confronts readers with unanswerable questions while inspiring her daughter-in-law—and to share the author’s hope, also her descendents on the throne of David—to cling to her dreams and work toward making them a reality. We parted with the promise that I would share further thoughts on why I had chosen the name Naomi when the opportunity next presented itself.
Naomi contacted me a few hours before Shavout. She would not be returning to the Chinese language program this summer. I would be on my own but she wished me luck and urged me to keep pressing forward even on the longest summer days. And so I did, and so I am.
Shavout at Chabad of Beijing was wonderful. I arrived with no place to stay the night and nothing but the hope that their goodwill and my vaguely familiar face might earn me a place to spend the night and the holiday. Both hopes were fulfilled. I also met two fascinating individuals over the prayers and meals all held in the Chabad House. One was an Israeli a half dozen years my senior. The other an American girl straight out of modern orthodox Jewry central casting (SKA, Brovenders, Long Island, etc). Both are studying Chinese in Beijing, and both provide compelling parallels to my own experience that perhaps can be explored in a future post. And finally, I also reencountered Amy Winehouse’s cousin, except when I came for Shabbat in late December I had confused the Chabad rabbi with Santa Claus and this time I only had to ponder the revelation of his close kinship with one of British Jewry’s most public personas. It was a lot to ponder over the holiday—perhaps it was for the best that it stretched on an interminable two days and left off with me on the doorstep of two long months of Chinese study in western Beijing.
Monday, June 16, 2008
There are races you run because you love the thrill, you are enticed by the challenged, or the camaraderie of your fellow competitors is enough motivation in itself. And then there is the no-holds-barred rush to catch a plane on Friday afternoon, the sort of contest that only the pious few will ever go in for.
My race to catch an 11:30 flight to Beijing from Chengdu began in a seedy hotel on the slopes of Emei Shan. I woke at 5:30, said an especially heartfelt prayer, grabbed my waterpak and held onto the seat of the motorcycle that roared down the final miles of the mountain with me aboard. The drive was thrilling and all too short. I arrived at the guesthouse where my bag had spent the night, sent off a concise email requesting my older brother purchase an e-ticket in my name for the flight later that morning, and made a run for the bus that would take me on the three hour trip back to Chengdu.
Unfortunately the bus schedule had felt the wrath of the earthquake as well. Regular services had been scaled back due to the paucity of visitors to the mountain. As a result there was no bus when I came running into the local bus station at 7:00 AM. I grabbed a cab instead to the larger bus station in the nearby town. Although I had no problem purchasing ticket, the bus almost did not leave. The driver got into a tremendous verbal argument with several of the passengers. Feeling slighted, he stormed off and the passengers were left to argue amongst themselves. Despite my limited time, I was fascinated and could hardly choose which one of the eye glaring, vein popping, tomato faced combatants to stare at.
Several rounds of negotiations later, the bus driver returned and at a quarter to eleven we finally rolled to a stop in Chengdu. I had little time for sentimental farewells to the city I had called home for much of the past week. Somehow I pushed my way to the front of the bus, and by an even greater miracle, immediately threw myself into one of Chengdu’s typically hard to locate cabs. The driver and I gabbed about the future of China and Israel relations while he raced to the airport in, what he promised me, may have been the fastest time ever recorded by a cab heading to the Chengdu airport.
I arrived at the airport precisely at eleven. In thirty minutes the flight I was counting on joining was leaving the tarmac. In fifteen minutes the gate would close. And as of the minute I stepped into the airport, the passengers were taking their seats aboard the plane.
The rest of the story is about a healthy dose of impudence, along with a rock of an older brother who off in New York had made certain to purchase a ticket in my name. After the airport information desk confirmed a Samuel Chester was indeed booked on the flight, I apologized my way to the front of first the check-in counter and then the crowded security line. At 11:12 I reached the gate, at 11:15 I was stretching out in the front row of the aircraft, taking advantage of what was a fairly empty flight to revel in the joy you feels when you find yourself somewhere you should have no business being, except through you own determination and an overly generous dose of good fortune.
The woods are lovely dark and deep, but I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep. Robert Frost
There were only four hours of daylight remaining in the day when I arrived back at the bus station four miles from the summit of Emei Shan. On the walls of the guesthouse at the foot of the mountain, former guests from across the world had scrawled messages claiming the descent took anywhere from six to sixteen hours. Despite the fact that the lone six-hour boast was nearly covered with a message insisting that anything less than ten hours was far fetched, I let the final bus depart for the base of the mountain and set off by foot. Part of me reasoned that in four hours, at a very fast clip, I could reach a point where the final descent could be completed without the aid of the sun. Part of me replied that if such was my reasoning, I should have at least made sure to bring the flashlight I did not have. But the rest of me concluded that the sites along the descent were too good to miss, and anyway, the challenge of surpassing even the far fetched claim of a six hour descent was too tempting to avoid.
Thirty minutes later I had dropped 1540 feet, nearly that many stairs and the first three and a half miles of my descent were behind me. The only way to appreciate how quickly that meant I was moving, however, is to understand why the first leg passed at such a blistering pace. Fifteen minutes into my descent, a young man in a faded black suit ripped past me, hurtling down the steep as anything stairs with hardly a care for his personal safety. I had no idea where to or why he was running. But the only way to find out was to follow him. So I took off. For the next two miles we nearly flew, barely pausing around hairpin turns and often doing nothing more than simply tumbling down the endless stairs. When we finally arrived at Elephant Bathing Pool— the next stop along the route— the Bond movie baddie turned to me, and with a pause to grab his side and gasp for breath, asked why I was running after him. I replied by posing the same question. His answer? “My friend is here, I had to tell him something.” I told him I had the same need, though running was my means of communicating my message, and he—rather than his friend—was the person I was speaking to. From the bemused look I received in response, the guy might not have quite appreciated what I was saying. But he surely knew that one day when downhill running becomes the competitive sport it ought to be, the two of us could justly take our place as pioneers down the slopes of Emei Shan.
The best way to imagine how I spent the next two hours is to picture yourself descending the emergency stairwell in the Empire State Building—or the CN Tower for the Canadians oot there. Except instead of tackling 1,250 ft or 1,815 ft of stairs, you have a whopping 6,791 feet of brutally short, very very steep, concrete steps laid out before you. To complete the picture, imagine the stairwell has been painted with a majestic tableau of mountainous jungles taken straight from a Chinese oil painting. And remember, of course, that as you descend the light in the stairwell is slowly fading.
All that would be a close approximation of my thrilling descent except that it ignores Emei Shan’s most famous inhabitants: the monkeys. Despite laying claim to China’s oldest Buddhist temple and a sunrise that is rumored to best even that of St. Kats (Sinai, wup wup!), the mountain is far and away identified with the scheming macaques that populate the slopes. The monkeys have little fear of humans and most visitors can expect a hairy arm to make a grab at their backpack or camera. Visitors are advised to avoid provoking the hairy fiends, travel in large groups and not make any sudden movements.
None of these tips were particularly helpful for yours truly.
I was somewhere in between Elephant Bathing Pool and Magic Peak Monastery (Xianfeng Si) when a sharp turn brought me into a small crowd of monkeys. A large female was parked right in the middle of the stairs. As I approached she showed her teeth, flexed her claws and made me question whether doubling back up the stairs might not be the wiser course of actions. Unfortunately I had done my homework and knew all too well that as of 1997, scientists had confirmed that all macaques are carriers of the deadly Herpes B-virus. The smallest peck and I could receive the most unfortunate honor of joining the exclusive list of twenty reported cases of the B-virus, only four of whom survived. I like to think I am comfortable around members of the fairer sex, however, so with my camera clutched to my side I tried to slip past the harry baboon as unobtrusively as possible. My plan was to avoid eye contact, not make any sudden moves and as necessary, do something with the puny six inch twig I had lamely grabbed for protection when King Kong little sister appeared.
I was lucky I had the twig—all six inches of it. As my right foot passed by her outstretched leg, the large female monkey raised herself to her full height and brought her face within a few inches of my own. For a second I froze—and then she opened her mouth and I decided one look at her very sharp teeth was as close as I wanted to get to them. I could not move suddenly or the monkey might have reacted. So I gave her the twig. The distraction worked. In the second it took for her to sniff the thin piece of wood and casually snap it in two (much stronger then they appear, promise ya that!), I was past. While the rest of the pack gave me no further problems, I decided I had had enough of going mano el mano with the lonely ladies of Emei Shan. When a construction worker came into view at the next rest stop, I asked him how to protect oneself from the monkeys. His answer was to the point: he took the stick he was holding and smashed it against the closest tree trunk. Despite my misgivings of provoking a group of macaques and thereby inspiring a sequel to Congo, the all too forgettable man. vs. monkey film that ran away with worst film of the year awards in 1995, I carried a hefty branch with me the rest of the way down the mountain.
Before you get the impression that the monkeys of Emei Shan are all about sharp teeth and misplaced sexuality, let me share the story of the very first monkey I ran into on the mountain. On my way up to the summit I came across a fearsome sight: a woman selling fruit was faced off with a hungry macaque. One was behaving as you might expect: shrieking, yelling, and waving its arms like a windmill. The other combatant was seemingly blasé, leaning against the banister and watching its opponent in wonder. The hysterical one was, of course, the saleswoman, while the cool customer was the large, male monkey. After screaming failed to chase the monkey away, the saleswoman went at her opponent with a slingshot. Before her aim finally forced the monkey to hop off into the trees, a passing Chinese tourist gallantly threw a bottle of milk to the animal. In one smooth motion, the monkey caught the bottle, whipped off the cap, chugged the contents and then even wiped its brow before tossing the bottle aside and scampering away from the incoming rain of slingshot projectiles.
The sun went down shortly after eight o’clock. I had nearly reached my target, Qingyin Pavilion. At 2,329 ft the site was only a short distance to an exit from the mountain and my ticket to making it back to my guesthouse for the night. Unfortunately, as the night sky closed around me, I was lost amidst the valley of the monkeys. No such name exists on any map but the final mile to Qingyin is awash in carved statues of monkeys. Clambering over rope bridges, unable to see clearly in the gloom, the valley took on a spectral reality.
And that is when things got really strange. As I followed the path alongside a stream, a tall, thin man came into view. He was bent over in the midst of the creek, seemingly selecting river worn pebbles from the hundreds of specimens lying beside him. Acknowledging my presence was the best course of action. No sooner had I done so than he waved me over. In a voice that bounced off the water and around the trees and stones, the elderly man listened to my destination and then instructed me to follow the creak rather than stay along the path. I did not follow his advice without misgivings: it was now very dark, the creek was both very wet and cold, and the only thing keeping my confidence level as high as it was may have been the easy to follow pathway I had stayed on all the way from the peak of the mountain. Of course I did follow his advice. Or at least I tried to. The water was up to my ankles when I shouted back to the man that walking through a river was not my idea of a sound shortcut (if you must know, I was thinking of all those family members I lost fording the rivers in Oregon Trail). He replied by giving up his search for the perfect pebble and accompanying me through the waterway. With him as my guide, the otherwise hidden stone pathway in the midst of the water would have been impossible to find. When we met back up with the path later on, I tried to thank my guide. But without saying a word, he quickly turned back the way we had come, returning to the river and melting into the darkness that had enveloped the entire valley.
It was now truly night. I proceeded slowly. Buildings came into sight but I had little idea which was the pavilion—or more to the point, where I needed to turn off to find the road and the way back to the supplies I had left at a guesthouse outside the main entrance to the mountain. I had not walked more than twenty yards when a light shone out of the darkness. The light was accompanied by a short, middle aged lady. For reasons I never discovered, she was bursting with good humor. After quickly explaining to me that I had little chance of finding a ride back to my guesthouse, my new guide volunteered to lead me to a small hotel nearby where I could stay the night. I could hardly refuse under the circumstances. Arriving at one of the seedier hotels I have ever stayed by, I quickly ascertained that my good humored guide was in fact on the staff of the hotel. It was impossible to be angry with her however. Not only did she arrange a motorcycle driver to take me first thing in the morning to my guesthouse but the lady and I gabbed away for over an hour about the future of tourism in earthquake hit Sichuan province. I was the only guest in the hotel. After choosing my room—I was given a tour of each, eventually settling for the cheapest option— the rock of a bed and the ridiculousness of the last six hours could not prevent me from immediately slipping into a deep sleep.
Sunday, June 8, 2008
What are men to rocks and mountains? Oh! What hours of transport we shall spend! And when we do return, it shall not be like other travelers, without being able to give one accurate idea of anything. We will know where we have gone- we will recollect what we have seen. Lakes, mountains, and rivers shall not be jumbled together in our imagination; nor, when we attempt to describe any particular scene, will we began quarreling about its relative situation. Let our first effusions be less insupportable than those of the generality of travelers. (Pride and Prejudice, 106)
I spent Thursday killing my calves. In the course of the day, quite a few myths about one of China’s most sacred mountains were also laid to rest. More than anything, however, it was a day of the incredulous, a day of wonder. So please read on, and together we can try to make sense of a level of sublime ridiculousness unusual even by my traveling standards.
Before doing so, a quick note about the lead-in quote and the source, Pride and Prejudice. Those nearest and dearest to me have praised the book to no end. As gifted a writer as the book demonstrates Austen to be—as the above quote validates— I find all the character’s save for Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Gardiner to be insufferable (and esp. in Darcy’s case, boring as anything. Yes Eliza is a great character but as the protagonist, that at least I expected). That the plot is beside the point is, of course, beside the point. But if this is Austen’s idea of romance, count me firmly in the camp where emoting counts for something.
Meanwhile, back to mountain climbing…
No one but the clouds and the treetops were my witness as I stood at the highest point atop Emei Shan and shouted Am Yisrael Chai, Ode Aveenu Chai. I had arrived at one of China’s most famous mountains (shan) at midday, determined to make my way to the peak and descend in time to catch the return bus to Chengdu on Friday morning. At 3099 m (10,167 ft) and with over 30 km (20 miles) of concrete steps from top to bottom, Emei Shan is not quite cut out for a one day campaign. So I cheated, taking a shuttle bus to 7,972 ft, placing me only some four miles from the summit.
The path up the summit was steep as anything. But the challenge to yours truly was nothing compared to that faced by the porters who composed much of the fellow foot traffic en route to the summit. They were hard at work schlepping dry cement to the many temples scattered up the side of the mountain. During the Cultural Revolution these temples, like most traditional cultural sites in China, were put to the torch. Today Emei Shan is one of China’s most popular tourist destinations and so frantic reconstructions efforts are (literally) afoot. I watched as the porters’ loads were weighed to determine the wage earned for carrying the sacks of dry cement up the mountain. At first I walked alongside the porters, although their backs were bent so low under the weight that it appeared I was walking several steps ahead of them. Eventually I did rush ahead, reasoning that my own relatively carefree ascent could do nothing but add to the misery of the porters’ taxing climb. When an hour passed and my own speedy ascent had slowed to a pace resembling the porters’ slow trudge, I turned to a surefire means of revving me up for the final mile: music. Tuned into the same songs that accompany me on my runs, I was immediately rejuvenated and in no time reached the summit.
I expected the summit to take my breath away. What I did not expect is that atop one of China’s most popular tourist and pilgrim destinations, I would be the only one there. With the earthquake having scared away regional tourism, the construction workers and the odd domestic tourist were the only signs of life atop the mount. I quickly took in the requisite sites on the aptly named Golden Summit: the massive gold statue of a four-sided Buddha sitting atop four elephants playing some sort of guitar, and the Sheshen Cliffs that plummet 10,095 ft to the trees below. While staring into the clouds resting on (not above!) the summit, a red roofed temple suddenly came briefly into sight. Although no path was evident amidst the clouds, I immediately know I had to—and somehow would—find a way to the distant temple.
After mucking around in the bushes—and chancing upon a basketball court in the shadows of the golden Buddha—I spotted a sign that said: This Way to the Monorail. I had previously spied a thin metal strip edging its way through the woods to the temple lost amidst the clouds and so reason quickly merged with experience to prove that the monorail was the sole route to the distant temple. Unfortunately the monorail was closed due to the absence of visitors. Luck was on my side, however, as the electric grid powering the monorail had been turned off. When the construction workers were looking the other way, I hopped over a fence and, at first slowly and eventually with greater confidence, carefully walked along the eight inch plank into the forest.
I have never been particularly skilled at balancing and my fear of roller-coasters does not say much about my taste for great heights. Nevertheless I must have a talent for making the most of the circumstances because, despite the height of the slim rail, I soon mastered the art of walking in a very straight line. The trick was to move along without hesitating, as the few times I stopped to bask in the feeling of walking atop the treetops, my vision wavered and the reality of what I was doing quickly set in. After a mile’s distance, the rail ended at a small station, I hopped off, and it was only a brisk ten minute climb to what turned out to be Wanfo Peak, crowned by the Ten Thousand Buddha Temple.
My surprise at being nearly by myself at the Golden Summit was nothing compared to the disbelief of finding myself completely alone atop Wanfo Peak. Within the small temple, the clouds whisked by under foot and a few treetops were the only disruption to the blanket-like embrace with which the clouds surrounded the peak. Alone amidst the clouds, with no one to respond to my cries in Hebrew, English and Chinese, the world seemed to have come to a rest. I was too exhilarated to be scared, too overcome by wonder to understand how fortunate I was to have stumbled into such a slice of heaven. It was tough to make my way down and slide back along the monorail to civilization. But after reminding myself of Nachman’s simple words kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tzar m’ode, v’haikar lo li’haphed clal I parted ways with a site that next to Namtso’s blue hues is unparalleled in my China experience.
The Jewish holiday of Shavout is drawing close, and so the remainder of this story—of monkeys, and mad chases, and calve killing descents and eerie wanderings along a nighttime creek—will have to await the future.
Saturday, June 7, 2008
At this place, at this moment in time, all mankind is us. Let us make the most of it. While we have a chance let us do something, before it’s too late. (Waiting for Godot, 1953)
On Wednesday I finally had the opportunity to deliver the CD-player to the children of what henceforth let us call Teddy Bear Village, or Teddy Village for short (real name is___ ). The girls, predictably enough, were all afire about the Chinese pop standards I had included on the accompanying CD. The guys seemed ready to accept Dropkick Murphy and the Eagles. Neither gender quite knew what to do with Marley or the Hebrew songs. I tried explaining that what matters is the tune and the lyrics—in whatever language—are only secondary. Not sure if they believed me but let us give it a few years and see whether rural Sichuan does not produce the next alternative music craze, or even rock band, in China. If so, we will know who deserves credit (not me, by the way, but those family—Alexander—and friends—Ariel, Raffi & Sabrina— that mainly introduced me to the same songs I passed onto the kids).
Three of the disaster response professionals had hired a van on Wednesday to see the earthquake area, and Maki (the Japanese co-owner of the guesthouse I am staying at in Chengdu) and I accompanied them. On my request, our first stop was to Teddy Village, the same site that I had such an incredible experience at on Sunday. Instead of teddy bears, the gifts of choice today were photos and, of course, music. I brought along the developed photos the kids and I had taken on Sunday. Since I knew not every child was in a photo, I decided to make thirty copies of some random photo in my album. Random in this case meant a photo the children would really appreciate and that could only mean a picture of me and my siblings. Now, mind you, the choice was not motivated by any inflated sense of my own self-worth. I in fact was of half a mind to distribute photos of friends of mine but decided against due to potential privacy concerns. My siblings were the obvious choice because between the children’s obsession over me and the importance of family in their own lives—not to mention how few Chinese children have siblings of their own— they were sure to appreciate an image of family, particularly the American version. Not only did the children clamor for my family photos like nobody’s business, their elderly teachers also got carried away. Before I left, I promised to provide further photos and, as possible, return to their village one day with my brothers and sister.
Our second stop was to the village where a Japanese disaster relief group, staying at the same guesthouse in Chengdu, has been working for the past week. They are led by a young guy named Yoshi who can only be described as remarkable. The rest of his group is composed of students and visitors volunteering for a few weeks. He is committed for several years, with the understanding that a rotating group of volunteers will assist him in rebuilding victims lives in the disaster zone. He is also a great guitar player and a very chill and friendly individual but of course you knew that already.
Yoshi’s group is working in a village named ___, in a valley between lush green mountainsides and endless rice fields. Minutes after arriving, I picked up a shovel and alongside one of the Japanese volunteers and two local female villagers, began moving dirt from the side of the temporary houses hat were in the process of being constructed. The army had delivered a cache of styrofoam housing units in the morning and so construction was going ahead full tilt. My own international crew was later joined by a young girl from the village and in the unremitting heat we sweated freely. I eventually paused to admire the blisters that had doubled the size of my thumbs in the space of an hour. While doing so, a Chinese media reporter came over and asked me where I am from. Any foreigner in China quickly gets used to the same question. I am so used to it myself, that my answer: “wo shi Meiguoren” (I am American), skips out without a thought. This time I answered differently, replying that I was from Yiselie. Considering much of my past inspiration and future plans come from Israel, shining some light on the little guy seemed like the right thing to do.
On the way back to Chengdu we passed through one of the town’s most affected by the earthquake. I thought the past days had inured me to destruction. But this town was on another level. Stairwells were not only dancing with lightposts but everything was scattered around madly like the lights had suddenly been turned on in a college frat party freezing contorted bodies in the act.
The destruction seemed to take even Bryan by surprise. After seeing me interact with the children at our first stop, Bryan had remarked how obviously entranced I am by everything China. He shared that he also once had what he called the “China Honeymoon,’ but that knowledge and experience had long since removed that sense of wonder and excitement in engaging China. As he spoke I mostly listened. Later that night, however, as I was saying thank you to Maki for opening her guesthouse home and providing me with the opportunity to volunteer, I shared with her my own perspective on sustaining the elusive China Honeymoon. There is no question I have it. Putting aside unforgettable experiences with children in earthquake zones, I know I have it because every time I go running in China I find myself pinching myself, agog at the spectrum of humanity, of reality that China shares with the attentive observer. Few societies I have traveled to can compare to the dynamism of China, where the most traditional and the most modern personalities share the same street as one of the most ancient civilizations in the world develops at a pace rarely matched in history. Although I am living the China Honeymoon at present I disagree with Bryan. Knowledge and experience will surely change the terms of my relationship with China. But like any relationship, greater familiarity need not disrupt feelings of wonder and admiration. My fascination with China may in large part be based on its foreignness. But as my ability to communicate increases, I expect that my interest will only deepen. Communication is the force in any relationship and this is all the more true in the interaction of two foreign cultures. I have so much to learn and to share with this culture and the idea that further knowledge will dampen my interest is what I find foreign.
I only told Maki the gist of these feelings. Instead we parted with my promising that if the day ever comes when my China Honeymoon is indeed wearing thin, I will come back to Chengdu and stay at her guesthouse. Maki seemed to understand. As a parting gift, she signed my t-shirt with the words “Good Luck Sam and do not forget about the Zhonguo Honeymoon.”
My life was too short to achieve the conquest of the world. That task is left for you. (Genghis Khan, 1227)
“Is there a temple in Chengdu?” is easily the oddest question I have ever been asked in Sichuan. With more than two thousand years of history to its credit, Chengdu is chock full of temples—pretty much every eastern faith should find something in this city of thirteen million they can burn incense and offer apples to.
The only temple one is certain not to find is the Jewish kind, since depending on your affiliation such a temple can only be found in Jerusalem’s past and future or (because reform and conservative Jewry call their houses of worship temples, right?) in communities across America. Buddha or bagels, whatever the question had in mind the answer should have been fairly obvious. Except as both the questioner and I realized, he was only trying to introduce himself. My xigua was too easy an identifier to ignore, and so it was through our common heritage that I met, Bryan, the coordinator of Habitat for Humanity’s response to the Sichuan earthquake and one of the savvier Western aid workers operating in the area.
Five months before I arrived in China, I made sure to purchase a ticket that would allow me to travel for two weeks before my summer language course would begin in Beijing. It did not seem necessary to pick a destination. Having traveled in the West, studied near Shanghai and suffered through a freezing winter in the capital, the possibility of taking advantage of the warm weather and exploring China’s north beckoned. Once my thoughts turned north, they were thrown slightly west, and the endless plains of China’s northern neighbor of Mongolia took over my imagination. Until May 12. After western China was shaken by a massive earthquake, travel plans took a back seat to considerations of how I could contribute to the disaster response. The experts had little advice. None of the two dozen NGOs I contacted had any presence in the earthquake zone, most replied that they did not see the Chinese government allowing them in for a few weeks and the best advice I received was simply to go myself and see what I could do. When rumors spread that foreigners were being kept from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan and the headquarters of disaster response efforts, I figured the best I could count on was pitching in from Beijing for a few days and for the rest of the time…Mongolia! By the time my flight landed in Beijing on May 28, I had Lonely Planet’s guide to Mongolia down cold. By the time I went to sleep in Beijing that night, I had a ticket to Chengdu, having discovered the rumors were baseless and that this foreigner, at least, was heading west to see what he could do in person.
Few western aid workers were evident in Chengdu when I first arrived. But gradually they trickled in. Besides Bryan, whose work with Habitat will continue in Sichuan for at least the next six months, I got to know Stephanie and Caroline fairly well. Both had arrived with a similar mission as Bryan: to scout the area and find how and where their respective organizations could put down roots. Stephanie represents Hands on Disaster Relief, a short-term group that provides (largely foreign) volunteers with a means of directly contributing to natural disasters through clearing rubble and building housing. In other words, had they already been up and running, I would most likely have been one of their first volunteers. Caroline had arrived with a few other English folks under the group name Build Me a Shelter. With a cheap and easy to construct shelter that had been designed in response to the earthquake in Pakistan, her group was looking for someone interested in making use of their product.
Of the many relief workers I met over the course of the day and the week, Bryan was the most intriguing. Besides the shared Jewish faith, he has taken quite a few stepping stones to become a professional in development work in China that I consider likely possibilities for myself. Even his current occupation, disaster relief but really development in western China, is in some sense one area I generally see myself working towards. Even as I observed the parallels and tried my best to learn from Bryan over the next few days, nothing in his path seemed to predetermine how my own professional goals need necessarily play out. But it was fascinating to meet him and so many disaster response professional, especially when I had arrived in the country only a few days before with little idea if I would even be able to contribute effectively to the aid effort.
Lights will guide you home/And ignite your bones/And I will try to fix you. (‘Fix You,’ Coldplay)
Shortly after one o’clock, the Chinese NGO team promised, they would come pick me up from my Chengdu hostel and we would return to the children’s camps in the disaster area. Shortly afternoon, I raced out the door, convinced that nothing like a quick run would prep me for revisiting the children I had met the day before. Between the tunes playing in my ears and the thoughts of the chillin’s playing in my mind, my enthusiasm got the better of the time and forty minutes later I found myself with less than twenty minutes left for the entire return leg. Just as the clock struck one I slipped through the gate of the guesthouse, with the fear that I’d miss the Chinese NGO peeps spurring one of the most charged runs of the my life.
Great runs have a tendency to spark great ideas. This one was no different. There is a great Chinese saying, which boils down to something like ‘don’t stop until three have rang the bell.’ Or in other words, get three opinions before making your decision. A staffer from the hostel shared the saying with me as, minutes removed from my frantic run, we headed out the door to find a CD player. Sure enough three stores required visits before I was back at the guesthouse, polishing off the first CD I have ever burned to accompany the new CD player I decided to give to the children. Coldplay’s Fix You was joined by an eclectic cast: a few Chinese pop songs, the Beatles, some Marley and Moshav, Dropkick Murphy’s Boston rally song (thanks Ariel!) and a song composed and sung by a friend that has had a special meaning for me since said friend shared it with me a few months back.
I was buzzed to see how the kids would react to the music. Another child—and another last second run—changed my plans for the day, however. The Chinese NGO called and said we would not be heading to the camps today. Apparently, a pregnant lady had requisitioned the relief workers’ car for a last second race to the hospital.
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
A teddy bear does not depend upon mechanics to give him the semblance of life. He is loved - and therefore he lives. (Pam Brown)
I came back exhausted. And then set out for an early evening run. But in my exhaustion lies two of the most memorable hours of my life, and a slice of how daily life in temporary tent-camps is for thousands of Chinese torn from their homes by the devastating earthquake of May 12.
I arrived in Chengdu late on Thursday night, with only a backpack, a big bag full of stuffed animals, and a general idea how I could find my way to the disaster area and distribute the toy animals to children displaced by the earthquake. The bag of stuffed animals came courtesy of friends, from the one who first proposed the idea of taking teddy bears to China, to all those who (largely anonymously) donated their childhood toys and even the friend who ingeniously created the black garbage bag cum duct tape “suitcase” in which the stuffed animals made their way to a displaced persons camp north of Chengdu. Fittingly enough, my arrival in Chengdu was aided by another friend. After I told the young college student sitting by my side in the airplane what my purpose was in coming to Sichuan province, he insisted on assisting me with my luggage. After meeting up with his girlfriend, the three of us ended up spending the night together, eating roasted corn on the cob while walking around the main square in Chengdu. We joked about the massive statue of Mao that lords over the square, shared insights on learning foreign languages and discussed how my new friends would enjoy Boston if the college student is accepted by the MIT graduate program he is applying to for next year. When we arrived at the guesthouse where I am staying in Chengdu, my two friends took the lead in describing to the guesthouse staff my desire to distribute the stuffed animals. After the accommodating staff proposed a way I could put my goal into action, and not until they had insisted on carrying my bags up to my bedroom in the guesthouse, did my two friends finally say goodnight! And here I thought I had come to Sichuan province to provide assistance!
The backpacker couple who own the guesthouse proved to be as helpful as my young friends from the plane. Their first level of generosity was hosting me by what must be the most well-provided for guesthouse in China. Amenities include, besides the new set of “kosher” cooking utensils they began using on my instruction—see previous post, a traditional Chinese garden, a well stocked English library, dozens of animals from black pigs to green-eyed frogs, and even a pool table and gym equipment. The highlight of the guesthouse is, of course, the wonderful staff and the owners’ cute as anything two little daughters. It is difficult to conceive of a more imaginative childhood home than the one these two girls inhabit. I constantly saw them giggling about, playing with the cats and dog, helping their Singaporean father feed the pigs and rabbits kept beside the garden, or practicing any of the three or four languages they speak with the hodge-podge of international travelers.
Thanks to plans organized by the girls’ mother, on Sunday morning a small group of Japanese aid workers and myself joined a local Chinese NGO that was setting off to the disaster area. In our six car convoy we carried supplies to donate to the people living in the displaced persons tent camps set up some two hours north of Chengdu along the cusp of the earthquake zone. The majority of the supplies consisted of food and water, though a healthy portion were stuffed animals. By a strange coincidence, Sunday was the perfect day to give children toys. Chinese nationwide were celebrating Children’s Day, an international holiday that has always had special resonance in communist China. Over the course of the day we would arrive at three different camp sites, meet with children, and divvy up our warm feelings and precious toys.
The first camp consisted of large blue tents as far as the eye could see. Near the camp entrance were two long lines of adults, waiting patiently to receive their daily allotment of food and to fill their water supplies from the single sink. I did not have the chance to wander the camp at more length because my group was immediately plunged into a large group of children. When we first arrived, a clown and then a traditional Sichuanese opera performer were entertaining the crowd. After the performance wrapped with a rousing rendition of the popular Chinese song Hero, I found myself talking with two young siblings. Their English teacher, a teenage volunteer, had invited me over to speak with the brother and sister. Considering I could hardly follow their rural dialect and they probably would not understand my English we communicated in the ideal fashion: I spoke garbled Chinese while they tried out the full range of English phrases they had memorized from recent lessons. Their teacher was really interested in having me return later in the week. While I would have liked to have taken him up on the offer, the Chinese NGO said it would not be possible. My twenty-minute pupils were left with only a wave and a final “goodbye” as we soon piled back into our cars and drove onward.
The second camp we visited made my day, if not my summer, and will easily live on in my mind for years. We parked by what remained of a house, now just two and a half walls with a steel staircase twisting like a pretzel through what remained of the front door. Nearby were a few tents, alongside which a series of wooden huts were in the midst of being constructed. While most of the NGO groups organized the supplies and a few pitched in with the construction effort, I wandered beyond back and ducked into a small tent. Four elderly adults were sitting inside as if waiting for somebody. When I walked in they excitedly asked me to sit down, then offered food and water. After declining their gifts and thanking them profusely, I was interrupted by a small hand tugging at my shorts. Three little children had snuck into the tent and when they had my attention, and confirmed I was indeed a foreigner, their imploring eyes were all the instruction I needed. The children’s need for attention, for someone as exotic as a foreigner to take an interest in them, deserves all the credit for what transpired. From the moment I left the adults’ small tent, I was with anywhere from five to fifty children for the next hour and a half. In the unrelenting heat, a bag full of stuffed animals, a sheet of paper, my pen and a digital camera combined to provide the time of our lives.
The moments passed so quickly and yet everyone and everything is frozen in my mind: playing Kick the Can after neither me or the kids could effectively explain any other games; volunteering to sign my name on a piece of paper for one kid and then being mobbed by every single kid—literally, mobbed by fifty or so sweaty 5-15 year olds— for my “signature;” providing another kid with my American cell number (his request) and then having every kid rush back to get my number as well (crazier than it sounds, believe me!); older teens inviting me to sign my name on their t-shirts; an eight year old boy imploring me to stay the night by his place; explaining what Jerusalem means to me to a young girl who wound up with a gold Israel Discount Bank that had a picture of Jerusalem (big thank you to whoever put their stuffed animals in that bag!), when I left the girl was still proudly showing off the bag to one and all.
All that, and the stuffed animals. And oh, the stuffed animals! When three of the boys rushed to the cars to carry the bag full of animals back to the tents, I was concerned they would be disappointed that the cool American toys I had promised them would turn out to be nothing but babyish stuffed animals. Were my concerns misplaced! The kids loved the animals, loved them- loved them! And thanks to all those who gave—and to the Eirrech family for organizing the whole effort—there were enough so that every child received a stuffed companion. Their smiles upon receiving the gifts, made all the more special when I explained to them where they had come from, were so contagious that everyone from the silent adults in their solitary tent to the rest of the NGO team were smiling as we pulled away all too soon. My last glance at the campsite is perhaps hardest to forget: as our car bumbled down the unpaved path, a young girl was walking in the other direction towards her family’s tentsite. Framed by the green rice fields and broken cement houses, she had a bounce in her step as balanced on her head was a fuzzy, white teddy bear courtesy of Michael Goon and family.
It is difficult to describe the scenery here without thinking of the children that I met in the camps. One drives along small dirt paths, with lush green fields spread in every direction. Farmers are at work in their fields, straw hats protecting them from the blazing sun. The occasional ox comes into view, with an ancient sunburnt fellow trundling it along; the two of them could have slipped off any traditional Chinese painting. And then one glances at the houses and sees devastation: roofs caved in, staircases flung through windows and the families living out of plastic tents in their front yards. Its only because I know that these families, who have so little, now have something extra thanks to your generosity, that I can smile as well as I reflect on the camps. So thanks a hundred times over, to all of you that made my trip happen, in all the many ways.About that run...
I came back to Chengdu exhausted yet exhilarated from one of the most incredible afternoons of my life. A run was clearly in order. The exhaustion began to kick in on the return leg and might have become a concern if it was not for the stare I received from a middle aged man lying at the foot of a bridge. His eyes seemed to cut right through me yet what lifted my heart and sped up my feet was his face: the man was the spitting image of the incomparable Prefontaine, or at least what the great Pre would have looked like if he had not died tragically in 1975 in a car accident at age 24. And if he would have had vaguely Chinese features. With Pre on my mind and the smiles of dozens of young Chinese children in my heart, I raced home in no time.
“John Chapman. He lived for others. 1774-1845.” (inscription on John’s gravestone).
Stephen Chase dreamed of bringing light and progress to China in a riotous decade marked by revolutionary nationalism. Yours truly dreams similar dreams, in an era again overshadowed by political showdowns and dramatic displays of (what is now) conventional Chinese nationalism. Perhaps the major difference between the protagonist of Alice Hobart’s Oil for the Lamps of China (an unforgettable and very timely read) and yours truly is the way in which we seek to realize our shared dreams. For Chase the answer was to supply every Chinese living room with an oil lamp. For me, the scheme is to provide every Chinese guesthouse with a kosher frying-pan.
Before you laugh off what is something of a cutesy attention grabber, hear me out because there is something to be said for the frying pan rather than the oil lamp. The strategy that Chase pursued as a Standard Oil frontman in 1920s China has been the mantra of American business leaders and Chinese political elites since Deng Xiaoping threw the country open to foreign investment in the 1980s. American corporation see endless possibility in the country’s cheap labor and untapped consumer markets. And every domestic leader since Deng has embraced the power of the market, broadcasting the diminutive leader’s pragmatic message that in today’s China “to get rich is glorious… no matter if it is a white cat or a black cat; as long as it can catch mice, it is a good cat.”
There is certainly something to be said for improving individual and social wellbeing through bringing the mythical oil lamp into every Chinese home. But wellbeing is not simply about how much oil you have to measure your annual income. Or for that matter, how much oil you have to use in frying your chaofan (fried rice). It is also about what sort of frying pan you are using to make your favorite Chinese stir-fry. What is being sacrificed in the natural world, in terms of the environment, through the ceaseless pursuit of material advancement? And what is being sacrificed in the spiritual world, in terms of morality, culture, and intellectual honesty, to keep the lamps burning?
I do not decry the traditional development approach, and can only applaud idealists like Chase who seek realize truly monumental goals within an often soulless corporate culture. But in looking for ways to assist Chinese development, I am more attuned to the Jonny Appleseeds than the Paul Bunyans. Or in Zionist terms, the Ahad Ha’ams rather than the Ze’ev Jabotinskys. Or in Chariots of Fire terminology, the Eric Liddell approach rather than that of Harold Abrahams. Or in my own terms, without any value system or cultural appreciation—without a frying pan that can become about something larger than satisfying one’s own appetite-- all the oil in the world will be unable to shine a light on our shared humanity. Poll after poll shows a dearth of any compelling moral barometer in Chinese society and rampant corruption and materialism are two of the more obvious results. The tragedy is that traditional Chinese culture is blessed with some incredibly sophisticated and vivifying schools of thought, from the humanist ethic of the Confucians to the contemplative ethos of philosophical Daoists.
In spreading kosher frying pans around China—more a goal than a reality, as I can only point to Lijiang, Chengdu and Beijing as evident success stories— I realize I am far from really implementing a cultural based approach to development. Or for that matter, in making but the slightest contribution to increasing intercultural communication between two ancient civilizations. It is a message worth believing in, however, a message not to ignore as China’s oil needs progress far beyond anything Stephen Chase could have imagined three quarters of a century ago.
Saturday, May 31, 2008
A dragon lives forever but not so little boys/Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys. (Puff the Magic Dragon, 1963)
On Thursday I took a late afternoon flight from Beijing’s brand new airport terminal. From above, the terminal is something else, a mammoth red and gold structure, whose graceful dragon-like form symbolically coincides with some of the other high-profile buildings sprouting up around the capital, namely, the Great Egg and the Bird’s Nest (otherwise known, respectively, as the National Theater and the Olympic Stadium). From inside, what is reputedly the world’s most advanced airport terminal has a ways to go in terms of airport security, or at least in protecting outgoing flights from the dangers of Friday night kiddush-observing passengers. After my Kedem grape juice-box was flagged by security (and after the guard took several puzzling minutes to carefully unwrap my tefillin), the guard lamely asked that I go back and check it in. After hemming and hawing some (who--and how--checks in a four-inch juicebox?!), I agreed. The guard then left me to my own devices, and after gathering up the rest of my stuff, I was sorely tempted to ignore his request and simply head toward my gate. So I did. Whether out of neglect or a desire to not mess with the foreigner, no one said a word. After arriving at my gate, however, my better instincts kicked in and I raced back to the check-in counter, checked in the bite-sized juice-box, and minutes later, was safely on my way to Chengdu.
Thanks to my Shabbat observing ways and the generosity of the U.S. government, I had ample opportunities in June 2007 to stroll around the streets of Chengdu. Friday morning, however, a run rather than a stroll was called for and so I went with the usual plan when setting off for a run in an unfamiliar city: find the closest body of water and hug its banks until they return me to where I started. The usual plan works especially well when the body of water turns out to be a lake. Rivers trump lakes in Chengdu, however, and so my two-hour plus jaunt to the northeastern edge of the capital of Sichuan province came by following the meandering Funan River. When you are next in Chengdu, I highly recommend following the path of the river as tea-houses, public parks, and even a waterpark hedge the pleasant footpath that runs alongside the waterway. I don’t particularly recommend taking my route, however.
Instead of following the river into the heart of the urban area I had explored last summer, I ran alongside the northern bank to the city’s outskirts. Crumbling urban sprawl eventually gave way to small plots of crops nestled amidst factories, and when the river finally trickled to an end by a lumberyard, it was high time to cross the stream and turn back. This is when things got a little messy. Factories prevented me from retracing my steps along the southern bank of the river. Instead I stumbled through endless shantytowns, dodging alike the mangy dogs and old folks working in the bitesize fields adjacent to their dwelling. When a rail-track intersected my path, I followed it on a hunch. When the track hit a metal fence, I suppressed my instinct to slip under the corroded barrier and instead followed the path along the brick wall that bordered the railway station. My instinct might have paid off but the hunch paid off in spades when several miles of twists and turns ended and a railway bridge I had passed (and had photographed at length) during the incoming leg of my journey came into view. There are lessons to be learned from my first run in Chengdu. Rather than dwell on them now, and considering I have pointedly not shared the most fascinating parts of my first twenty-four hours in Chengdu, I’ll leave them for the future.