Saturday, June 7, 2008

Claiming my Zhongguo Honeymoon

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.”

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